Our brains were once seen as fixed entities, as unbending machines. But new research shows that there is nothing stopping you, at age 80, from learning to play a few pieces of Puccini on the piano or learning to discuss a few political theories in Portuguese.
The late Paul Bach-y-Rita, a visionary researcher, led the way in determining that our senses are not hardwired. According to him, “We see with our brains not with our eyes.” He believed that our eyes merely sense changes in light energy and that it is our brains that do the perceiving and the seeing.
Through his research into sensory substitution, Bach-y-Rita came to prove beyond doubt that the brain is indeed a flexible organ and capable of great changes at any age, with no surgical intervention necessary. This finding opened up the possibility of enormous and extraordinary change – for all of us to forge new pathways and create new patterns.
Ever since Bach-y-Rita was finally taken seriously, thousands of experiments have been conducted in numerous areas, making neuroplasticity a widely accepted term, and bringing hope to many.
Today, one of the world’s leading researchers on neuroplasticity is Dr Michael Merzenich. He points out that one of the major differences between critical-period plasticity in childhood and adult plasticity is that during the critical period in children, brain maps can be changed merely by being exposed to the world. This is because the learning machinery in infants is always switched on. The reason for this is that babies are unable to single out what is important, so they pay attention to everything. Once our brains become more organised, we become selective about what it is we pay attention to. So the doors to learning are never closed up and locked – they are left ajar for the rest of our lives.
Help for Learning Disabilities
An exciting area where neuroplasticity is having a positive effect is on learning disabilities. Prior to our knowledge of neuroplasticity, compensation was often seen as the key to treating a particular learning disability. But this kind of teaching does not strengthen anything; rather it circumnavigates the problem. For example, according to neuroplasticity researchers, encouraging a child who has difficulty reading to listen to audio tapes will ultimately only exacerbate the problem.
In Toronto, Canada, the Arrowsmith School is having a profound impact on the lives of struggling learners. The school was started by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, a life-long sufferer of acute learning disabilities. While at graduate school she came across the findings of two scientists – Dr Aleksandr Luria and Dr Mark Rosenzweig – which she used to develop exercises for her own brain. She shut herself away and performed hours upon hours of rote-like tasks.
She emerged triumphant and went on to identify 19 brain areas that are most commonly weakened in those with learning disabilities.
In many ways, Arrowsmith Young’s findings are beautifully simplistic. “Because complex mental operations involve multiple functions, our mental operations are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Few of us have a precise idea of our weaker brain areas,” she explains. “Weaker brain areas can often function with effort, though they are often the first to underperform when we are sick or fatigued. Once we are in ‘overload’ we usually don’t know which area is causing the problem, only that we have mental gridlock. Sometimes we only discover weak areas when memory load to that area increases.”
Benefits of Rote Learning
Not surprisingly, admittance into the Arrowsmith School can take up to 40 hours, in order to determine which areas of the brain are weak and if they can be helped.
One Arrowsmith graduate, Dan Cooper, who is now a venture capitalist says: “The programme only works if you work, the way a bodybuilder has to.”
The brain needs exercise like the rest of our body and while we may think nothing of doing 200 sit-ups, repeating a mental activity 200 times strikes us as somewhat bizarre. But as Arrowsmith Young points out: “Rote memorisation probably strengthened visual and auditory memory (and, hence, thinking in language and pictures) just as an almost fanatical attention to handwriting probably helped strengthen motor-symbol-sequencing capacities – and thus not only helped handwriting, but added speed, automaticity, and fluency to reading and speaking.”
Neuroplasticity Offers New Hope
Barbara McCrea is a local Feldenkrais practitioner with over 20 years’ experience. The Feldenkrais Method is a form of movement education that was developed by Dr Mosh Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist (1904-1984).
Barbara explains that the exercises developed by Dr Feldenkrais are revolutionary because they communicate directly with your brain, the control centre of the body. It is the brain and nervous system – not your muscles – that determine the health of your posture, the ease and comfort of your movement, and the extent of your flexibility. Feldenkrais exercises are designed to access the motor centres of your brain and provide the information your body needs for optimum improvement. The exercises form new neuromuscular pathways, creating improved body use, health and vitality. They are slow, gentle, relaxing and emphasise effortless movement.
The discovery and ongoing research into neuroplasticity makes this an exciting time, with new research being done every day, and enormous hope on the horizon for sufferers of debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, or for accident victims with brain damage and many others. For those of us without those challenges, it’s good to know that the path towards old age is no longer a slippery slope towards senility.