Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back to the Future: Neuroscience and Kindergarden

“ . . . habit is a great deadener.” Samuel Beckett

Out of the labs and medical schools across the globe neuroscientists are making some startling discoveries. Startling to the health sciences perhaps but not to those of us in the arts and those who have experienced the benefits of mind/body practices such as Hatha Yoga.

If you’ve been under a rock, it’s been impossible not to notice the explosion in the media stemming from these almost weekly reports from halls of science. Why? Aging baby boomers? Hardly. It has come from a long chain of research as is usually the case in the sciences, but also from the use of new technology like MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) that gives precise pictures of brain activity. Physics and molecular biology in particular has been involved as well. Neurons. Brain Cells. Get used to hearing about them. What is revolutionary about what neuroscience is uncovering is not just interesting facts for scientists to argue about in journals like Nature, but these studies are asking questions and providing valuable insights about the very way in which we think, perceive, feel, remember, and imagine. Consciousness itself is being examined in the laboratory.

One of the discoveries which has received a lot of attention is rather obvious but nevertheless critical for how we understand the way in which neurons work and regenerate. In the past, researchers thought that as people aged or if they suffered severe trauma or injury they lost neural function in parts of the brain for good. Not so. The brain is “plastic,” to use the new term used by neuroscientists. The brain evolves, grows, heals, adapts like other parts of the body. And how? Through what artists, philosophers, and any wise observer of human life could have predicted: through stimulating experience, exercise, enhancing sensual perception, and cultivating self-awareness. The brain needs challenges and that doesn’t mean doing more crossword puzzles, it means moving the body, trying new things, breaking old patterns of thinking and acting.

Knowing is one thing, but changing behavior is quite another. Neuroscience has opened the door and provided the strongest evidence yet that not only the health of our brains but the health of our bodies, families, workplaces, and communities depends on applying this knowledge.

Where to start? Everywhere!

For years people pooh poohed what we did in kindergarden as a gentle and enjoyable way to slowly indoctrinate five year olds into the next phase of their lives: education. And then we learned in touchy/feely 60’s and 70’s that play, meaningful creative expression, singing, and exercise were in fact very important for developing children’s mental and kinetic agility, socialization, etc. Well, what neuroscientists are saying is that, hey, we need to be going to kindergarten our whole lives. As adults, we need to play, meaningfully, several hours a week. And not play so as to sharper and feed our addiction to competing, either. We need to practice being aware of our bodies; yes, practice, moving, tasting, seeing, touching, hearing, and thinking in novel and pleasurable ways. I am going bird watching again and painting, something my first grade teacher introduced us how to do!

I teach creative writing as well as yoga. And even in these disciplines, I have to remind students that their attitudes toward their body is critical. And that every day they need to practice at being alive: by experimenting with perception, seeing the world from different perspectives, exploring how concentration works, exercising their body, exploring the world, feeling pleasure not to escape but to absorb and savor life. Cultivating the mind begins with knowing how the soma or the body works. We can’t know how to use the imagination unless we understand what feeds it and what enhances it. Octavio Paz said, “Every act of perception is an act of creativity.” And this is exactly what neuroscience has underscored.
Perhaps this New Year you can begin to try a few new habits of life . . . and mind. My advice, think small, and make it enjoyable. Surprise yourself as much as you can.

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