Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fire Up the Neurons!


Let’s face it. War is a horror, but part of us gets a thrill from “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” We love the noise, color and excitement of stuff blowing up and sparkling. I just added a new arrangement of a game I made up to my new book and suddenly, it’s 4th of July and Chinese New Year together in my brain. I feel more alive, alert and vibrant, especially after the down time of Thanksgiving that was lovely, but found me thumbing through magazines, restless and lethargic at once. Why does it feel so great to create?

My amateur look into neuroscience tells me that the brain loves to make new connections and when the brain is happy, the rest of us follows. In an intriguing book with an intriguing title, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, author Jonah Lehrer makes some convincing connections between the intuitions of the artists and the laboratory findings of the neuroscientists. In the chapter on George Eliot subtitled “The Biology of Freedom,” he talks about animal experiments in neurogenesis, the ability of mammals to grow new neurons and new connections between neurons. At the end of describing various experiments, he concludes: “The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens.”

Well, almost. In a recent discussion with a friend about how people get more and more fixed in their ways and their thoughts as they age, I talked about the need to keep your mind as flexible as your body. What’s the equivalent of Yoga, Pilates or jogging for the brain? I suggest reading, writing, new experiences, learning new things, meeting new people, traveling, developing and maintaining a habit of constant questioning, reflection, expansion. But best of all is creation, whether writing a poem, improvising a jazz solo, painting a picture, cooking a new meal, planning a new class. This is what pours water on the “clay of the brain” and along with our effort to sculpt and shape ourselves, helps keeps the brain alive and vibrant. And here, I would like to find a new way to say what I keep saying over and over again in almost everything I write: Bring the arts into schools, give children the tools and exercise to keep their already flexible minds alive and alert, creating the habits that will help them resist the calcification of adulthood. And a word to us adults: be a model of a supple thinker who is constantly curious and questioning.

Lehrer goes on to note that some recent antidepressant drugs work by stimulating neurogenesis, “implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.”

There you have it. That’s why I’m so happy today. A new tune poured out of my fingers on the piano, I transferred it to Sibelius and put it together with a new game I recently made up. “Doug is my name.” “Ho-la!” answers the group. “Jazz is my game.” “Ooh-aah!” Off we go around the circle to find out what each person’s “game” is—ie, what do they love to do that makes them happy—hang-gliding, baking, massage, etc. (For more details, you’ll just have to buy my upcoming book.) Great fun and a great way to find out new things about the people we’re with.

Lehrer concludes: “Neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving.” While it doesn’t scan so well, you could say it like this:

“The Brain is my name. “    “Ho-la!”
“Neurogenesis is my game.”  “Ooh-aah!”

Or something like that. 

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