Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Brain That Changes Itself

Yarek Wazul for The New York Times

I’m off to England again, and may or may not post until I come back the first week in April, so thought I’d leave you with something to read: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD, about how our thoughts and experiences form the actual physical structure of our brains. There are myriad new ideas to ponder in this book, including how to keep our brains functioning into old age. I always thought I was safe because I use my brain so much, but it turns out it isn’t how much you use your brain, but how much you use it in new ways that keeps it young (good news for polymaths, formerly known as dilettantes). The older we get and the better we get at what we do, the narrower we become. Doidge suggests learning a new language to keep the mind alert, but I’ll just relearn the old one—French—which I learned as an adult and found, the last time I tried to use it, that it had dissipated to the point that only the nouns were left. Inspired by the book I’ve also started playing the piano again, learning a new, difficult piece and memorizing it (my piano teacher used to say that a piece wasn’t “mine” until it was memorized, and I feel that way about poetry, too—just ask me, the next time you see me, to recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky).

Memorization, it turns out, exercises the brain in important ways. Doidge writes:

…for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and this not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brain power unfamiliar to us now.

There’s much more in the book to challenge contemporary assumptions about how we use our brains—but for now I’m just happy to remember where I put my passport.


LXV said...

Carol, thank you for this. I am using these old brains here to learn spanish by a variety of methods including watching telenovelas, tapes and drills, listening to the radio and following spanish speakers as they walk down the street. I find that if I write out my verb drills, full conjugations with infinitives, in a relaxed and easy hand, I enjoy the process and it helps it to stick. Of course, I was raised in that traditional system of rote learining where we had memorization contests and endless penmanship practice. I vaguely remember reading somewhere in Robert Hughes (don't shoot me) that the value of rote learning in early childhood was to "fill the wells of memory", or words to that effect.

Modern life requires learning to manage overload. I wonder how the kids manage. I am grateful for the relative simplicity of my childhood. The world was more sensory and tactile, distractions were fewer. I volunteer in an inner-city middle school and I see a general inability to focus. But on the other hand, I see some kids winning tough scholastic challenges using reasoning skills I never developed. It's a new world out there and learning in later life requires a different set of expectations.

You've given me much food for thought. Have a safe trip and I hope your foot mends itself.

Jeffrey Collins said...

it is kinda strange how learning a musical instrument can really heighten about everything with yourself. I've been playing guitar since I was 15 and now I wanna go take piano lessons.

Keep up the great work with the blog.

Sell Art Online said...

Thanks for posting this. I have always been interested in how to keep our brains active through to old age.