Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Real Stimulus Package: Education, Health, Science, and the Arts

"In the long history of humankind (and animal kind too) those who who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." Charles Darwin

* Scroll down for information on my Yoga and Creativity workshop in Chicago (Feb. 22 at Yoga Now) and my retreat in Mexico (March 21-28.)

Despite the fears and worries of our time that dominate the news with war, the economic collapse, and global warming, we are experiencing an unprecedented explosion in the fields of science and in the fields of neurobiology and neuroscience in particular. Also, many fields of science and social sciences are overlapping to bring us amazing insights into how we understand the world both within our bodies and the natural world around us. It’s a heady time. And yet, it seems underreported or plainly misunderstood by the media. Why? Because it is too complicated? Yes, to some degree but that’s because it takes a little connecting of the dots. (The press doesn’t have time or the money, if you haven’t noticed, to do a decent job on anything.) No, the real reason is because what neuroscientists are revealing is how the human brain works and this is threatening the very foundations of our society, from education, to law and government, religion and the arts, business, health care, and the sciences themselves.

I know this sounds dramatic because, frankly, it is. We are learning more and more how the brain works, and that means how we think, feel, behave, process, create, move, learn and evolve are no longer mysteries of a person’s inner life but verifiable brain activities that can be studied, observed, recorded, and most revolutionary of all—changed. You say, so what? We always have had the ability to alter and change how we see and think and act. This is freedom. This is the foundation of education, this is what the enlightenment brought us, this is reason, this is the essence of every major religion. Yes, but now, it’s not a theory or a grand idea or a belief, it’s a fact. Less than a few years ago, scientists and educators did not believe that you could create new brain cells or neurons, and from that, the prevailing idea was that an aging brain, a damaged brain, or (though this was not explicitly discussed) a chronically under-stimulated brain (i.e. a person with little education or opportunity for enrichment) was likely never to regenerate but continue to atrophy. Not so, according to how we understand the brain now. The brain is much more resilient and adaptive than we understood.

And what is most exciting to me as a writer, teacher of creative writer and yoga instructor is that scientists, developmental psychologists, and cognitive scientists are studying everything now: how the imagination and memory work, how the emotions work, and how the brain integrates information, perception, and memory shaping how we think and learn. The very nature of consciousness is under the lamp and on the lab table. What the sage and poet have always known is now come to pass: knowledge is not so much what we know, it is rather how we know it that brings wisdom.

My careers as a yoga teacher, nonfiction writer/journalist and writing professor have challenged me to understand this very shift neuroscience has validated in its study of brain plasticity and the adaptive and creative potential of the mind. For example, Hatha yoga is basically a working theory, a pragmatic discipline to learn how the body and mind work and can evolve as we practice, observe, and develop our awareness of its inherent intelligence. Writing, as I’ve painstakingly learned, is an art form that opens us, again as our scientists are suggesting, to examine the story behind the story of what it means to be alive as a species in an ever-evolving universe. Human nature is as an infinitely fascinating and dramatic story, and the best writers, it seems to me, look at it with a god-like eye, asking us to do the same even while are entranced in the artistry of the story-telling. Teachers, too, the best ones I’ve had, inspired me to question everything, break assumptions and ideas down into their smallest parts, and then begin to find the connections and relationships common to what we discovered.

I hope we are now in a true age of reason, where rationality and, yes, hope, can sustain us and reward those who are doing the work to liberate the creative energy and intelligence locked away in so many people who have been numbed and dumbed down by both their own hopelessness and sadly business, government, and institutions that have benefited on this old way of thinking. The revelation in neurobiology is suggesting that though genetic factors affect our health and potential, our agency and our environment are so much more important and can be altered by a healthy, stimulated, and confident body and mind.

Just as neuroscience gives us hope about how we can learn more how to better understand our amazing creative minds, it also starkly points out just what happens to the brain when it does not get stimulated, when it becomes stuck, attached to repetitive cycles of thinking, acting, believing. The brain is a pattern maker and a healthy brain actually seeks stimulation and challenge so that it can maintain its flexibility to integrate, feel, perceive, imagine, think, and act. But if it is not stimulated, it atrophies, and falls victim to patterns that stifle its natural ability to learn, evolve and seek challenge.

This is why, I believe, education, the sciences, the arts, and the cultivation of physical and emotional health are such critical areas to support and FUND for our future both here in the US and abroad. We can make such a difference if we merge these areas and provide opportunities for people to access education, their creative potential and their health. This is not a romantic notion any longer, it’s a factual assessment of how the world works, how biology operates. Limiting knowledge, creativity, and health will be the death of us. Or we can begin to work and act so that as many people as possible can benefit from the liberating knowledge that is within our very own bodies.

My future blogs will discuss these themes:

• Creativity and the imagination and how yoga and other body awareness disciplines can help us understand and use them more consciously in our lives.

• How meditation works and how to use a meditation log to help cultivate more awareness of what’s going on physically, emotionally and mentally as you practice.

• Anxiety, panic, and the breath and how simple breathing techniques can affect our health, decrease stress, and even be a life saver.

• How learning basic physiology and how the mind and brain work affects our physical and emotional health, our ability to learn and take action.

• Hiking, yoga asana and how exercise can affect and alleviate depression.

• The physiology of creative writing: the importance of studying how the body/brain/mind works for the writer and the reader.

Yoga and Writing Workshop
Spring Break in Sayulita, Mexico
March 21 - 28, 2009
The Creative Body: Using Writing and Yoga to Discover the Authentic Voice
Writer Michael McColly will lead morning and afternoon yoga sessions to nurture the mind
and creative spirit along with journaling and writing exercises.
Journalist Teresa Puente will introduce writers to Mexican literature
and culture through afternoon classes. This is a retreat for writers,
students and teachers to work on an individual level with an
opportunity to discuss their goals and challenges with fellow writers
and the instructors.
Sayulita, Mexico is located about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta
on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It is a colorful beach town with an
array of restaurants and shops. There also are opportunities to go horseback riding, take
surfing lessons and go snorkeling.
The cost of the not-for-credit class does not include these activities, but organizers can
provide you with information. Airfare and transportation not included. It is possible to take
a taxi or a bus from the Puerto Vallarta airport to Sayulita.

Cost: $1,200 for workshop and a shared room and $1,500 for workshop and a single room.
This includes the cost of the workshop, lodging for a week, breakfast and lunch.
Send up to 10 pages of your work and a one page statement on why you want to take the
workshop to
For more information, go to

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