Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Something I've worried about is how my capacity for learning is going down as I get older. I'm glad I started learning Spanish when I was fifteen and my brain was malleable and responsive; learning other languages will not come as easily. The brain of a child is remarkable.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley cuts down on these worries. It renews my confidence in the brain and its learning abilities; even the brains of seventy-year-olds grow new neurons. Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks. If you want to me amazed, I suggest you take a look at the book. For now, here is an excerpt that builds on the "meditation and happiness" series of posts I've been doing.

Conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the adult mammalian brain is fixed in two respects: no new neurons are born in it, and the functions of the structures that make it up are immutable...

The brain contains the physical embodiment of personality and knowledge, character and emotions, memories and beliefs. Even allowing for the acquisition of knowledge and memories over a lifetime, and for the maturation of personality and character, it did not seem reasonable that the brain could or would change in any significant way...

The doctrine of the unchanging human brain...led neurologists to assume that rehabilitation of adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke was almost certainly a waste of time. It suggested that trying to alter the pathological brain wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression, was a fool's errand. And it implied that other brain-based fixities, such as the happiness "set point" to which a person returns after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy, are as unalterable as Earth's orbit.

But the dogma is wrong...The brain can indeed be rewired...It can quiet circuits that once crackled with the aberrant activity that characterizes depression and cut pathological connections that keep the brain in the oh-god-something-is-wrong state that marks obsessive-compulsive disorder. The adult brain, in short, retains mush of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuity that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream...

A few findings suggest that brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity: merely thinking about playing the piano leads to a measurable, physical change in the brain's motor cortex, and thinking about thoughts in certain ways can restore mental health...Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating! I am glad you are not worrying so much about the state of your mind in 50 years. After all, that kind of thinking might be some sort of self-sabotage, you know?