“Neuroscience” concerns the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology of nerves and nervous tissue, especially with their relation to behavior and learning.
The field asserts that our brains are designed to expand and improve across our lifetime. The brain constantly forms new connections between neurons (brain cells), in partnership with our learning efforts. This dynamic is known as “neuroplasticity,” and it occurs at the beginning of life as the immature brain begins to organize itself. It also takes place in response to a specific brain injury, to compensate for lost functions, and continues across the rest of our lives.
Just as strength training workouts add lean muscle to your body and help you retain more muscle in later years, researchers now believe that following a brain-healthy lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can also increase your brain’s cognitive reserve. Avoiding ruts and boredom is more critical than we might realize.
“The brain wants to learn new things,” says Dr. Robert Bender, MD, noting that some researchers believe that people are more vulnerable to dementia when they pay less attention to the things around them. “When the brain is passive, it has a tendency to atrophy.”
Some of neuroscience’s current and emerging tools include scans capable of showing brain activation in real-time, computer models that are capable of acquiring language capabilities using the same basic methodology of developing children, molecular techniques which can explain how changes on an infinitesimally small scale can translate into effects of incalculable gravity, and ethological studies which decode the complex workings and interactions of living creatures in their natural environments into overarching laws of behavior. What’s particularly cool is that neuroscientists can come from a variety of backgrounds, including psychology, computer science, biology, and medicine.
During Father’s Day Weekend in 2007 I was browsing through a Florida bookstore and picked up The Power of Myth, a book based on conversations between the late mythology professor Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. At the time I hadn’t thought about Campbell since first being introduced to his thinking 20 years earlier in that freshman Quanta program. I read a third of the book while still inside the store, bought it, brought it home, and read it all the way through several times.
I haven’t been the same since then.
Campbell’s discussion of the metaphors, symbols, and archetypes that compose the great stories, religious traditions, and rituals across every era in every culture poured gasoline upon my burning desire to learn. It increased my openness to studying other religions and Eastern thought in particular, which has greatly helped me to slowly push past dualistic thinking and be less caught up in being “right,” while more excited to seek to understand.
Ever since The Power of Myth, one book has serendipitously led to another like neurons reaching out to neurons. I’ve feasted on writers such as Karen Armstrong, Elizabeth Gilbert, Paulo Coelho, Eckhart Tolle, Shunryu Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Chogyam Trungpa, and many others whose writings seem inexplicably threaded together by an emphasis on becoming fully present, seeing things as they are, and unleashing authenticity. The more I learn through these teachers, the more I want to learn; and the happier my “plastic” brain seems to be.
The brain rocks! The brain wants to be well-utilized, well-fed, and de-stressed, and never fails to give more than it receives. The resilient human brain is our partner in this transformative, intentional odyssey. What our world needs now is certainly “love, love, love,” but it wouldn’t hurt to toss some deeper, more agile minds into the mix as well.