Tag Archives: plasticity

Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Barbara Arrowsmith

In January 2008 I wrote a post about Barbara Arrowsmith entitled Plasticity and Education. I first heard about Barbara through reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. To quote my piece from 2008, Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Her experiences growing up led to her opening a school that made use of strategies she learned through experience and research. Here she is in her own words, talking about the book she has just written, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.

Last post – Music; this post – Dance

For me, they are linked – I hear music, I start to move. And if it’s a certain kind of music, my body starts to dance. The only thinking I do is split second, wondering if it is okay to start dancing in my current surroundings.

Music has an amazing impact on the brain, influencing neuronal impulses to cause movement. This Facebook wall post says it all. In fact, there are instances where dancing helps the brain to think.

Parkinson’s Disease – Dance for PD

I have been training, via Dance for PD, to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. At some point, a person who has Parkinson’s winds up having difficulty controlling their movement. Their body parts function just fine, but the signal that is sent from their brain to their legs, for instance, gets lost in translation. The signal never arrives, or it arrives late or in a discombobulated form.

It turns out, though, that when someone with Parkinson’s participates in these Dance for PD dance classes, something magical happens. The music permeates their minds and provides rhythmic accompaniment for their movement signals to traverse from the brain to the body part. Feet and legs can move, indeed, dance, often gracefully and fluidly, facilitated by the music.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Very powerful it is, this dance! Especially in a social setting. Bringing people together to touch hands, figure out who leads, who follows, and how to create movement through music and footwork – all of this requires thought, concentration, focus and quick planning ahead. According to this article by Richard Powers, a dance instructor and presenter at Stanford University, dancing makes you smarterIt’s not just about the physical exercise provided by dance or the release of endorphins that ultimately makes a person feel good, it’s the social aspects that benefit cognition.

Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.

Fact is, when dancing with a partner, you have to pay attention and be one step (always figuratively and sometimes literally!) ahead of what they will do next. This causes your brain to build synapses and continually rewire itself the more you dance. All of this synaptical building is creating cognitive reserve, a mental buffer. The more neuronal connections you have, the better, so that if one portion of your brain malfunctions, the other portions of your brain can co-opt some of that cognitive reserve.

Dance is FUN and HEALTHY and SOCIAL and just plain GOOD FOR YOU!

Multi-whating?

[Updated January 19 and May 10 with some additions. Also, Happy Birthday a week and a day ago to Fred!]

I don’t usually listen to music while writing or reading, as the music distracts me. If there are words, I want to sing along, and no matter what, I tap my toes or swing my legs, and eventually my whole body gets into the act.

It is possible to retrain my brain so that I can focus on writing or reading while listening to music. However, then I would be multitasking, and research has led to the conclusion that the brain does not – and cannot – multitask.

(As an experiment, I’ve been listening to some wonderful recently-gifted-to-me music and writing this at the same time. However, the experiment doesn’t necessarily prove I can successfully multitask. It simply shows that with strong intent to concentrate, I can write while “turning off” my normal physical response to listening to music.)

NPR’s thirty minute Talk of the Nation, October 2008, is all about Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain. The gist of the conversation is that while you can do more than one thing at a time, none of them are done well. With that said, it seems that younger folks who are growing up with technology (the digital natives, as coined by Marc Prensky), and who do many things at once while using that technology, are perhaps changing their brains as they engage in successful multitasking. Apparently, playing certain types of video games promote the ability to multitask within the brain. Of course, because neuroplasticity is a feature of our brains, the rest of us can also train our brains to become better at multitasking. However, regardless of the age of the person attempting to multitask, switching between two dissimilar tasks will be more successful than switching between two similar tasks, although this is influenced by “how hard and how confusable” the tasks are.

(More on my experiment – last night the music was playing while I wrote the above paragraph. Rereading it this morning, there was a glaring mistake in the last sentence, which I have since remedied. And updated on January 19 – I decided that my memory of the NPR report was inaccurate, so I went back and listened to the NPR report again and, sure enough, I had it right the first time, and wrote it wrong the second time. Sure proves John Medina’s points made below!)

The above conversation is part of an NPR series about multitasking. Please note that “brain research suggests cell phones and driving are a dangerous mix, even with a hands-free device.” If you drive and talk on a cell phone, please listen to the NPR 8:55 minute conversation below on Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving.

John Medina, author of brain rules, states in Rule #4:

We don’t pay attention to boring things.

It turns out that multitasking simply does not help our brains to pay attention. You can read more about what Medina has to say on this topic in his blog article The brain cannot multitask.  In particular, Medina states that “The best you can say is that people who appear to be good at multitasking actually have good working memories, capable of paying attention to several inputs one at a time.” He goes on to say that there is a consequence to multitasking, and this is proved by my editing discovery this morning.

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.

(By the way, I turned off the music in order to listen to the NPR interviews and read the articles, but the music is back on now for the rest of this post.)

Here are three additional views on multitasking.

Learning & the Brain – Norman Doidge (neuroplasticity)

If you read Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, then you didn’t need to be at the Learning & the Brain conference session. And if you were at the session, then you should still read the book because Doidge shares intriguing stories and, in my opinion, is a far more captivating writer than he is a presenter.

Having blogged extensively about the people and issues described in Doidge’s book, rather than recoup it all again, I refer you to the tag cloud for a look at my past posts. If you are not a regular reader of this blog, my recommendation is to begin with the earliest post, which describes Plasticity and will be at the bottom of the page.

You will discover in your reading of either the book or my posts that “brain plasticity occurs in response to the environment, the task at hand, and our thoughts and imaginings”.

And what took so long for plasticity to be acknowledged? Doidge says it is partially due to how the brain has been considered throughout history, which has been from a combination of natural and mechanical perspectives; to a lack of technology for adequately seeing changes as they happen in the brain; to poor prognosis, in the past, of those with brain dysfunctions, coupled with insufficient clinical evidence of recovery; and to the “plastic paradox” (see the third from last paragraph), whereby plasticity leads to rigidity, and therefore plasticity masks itself.

Doidge has done an admirable job of compiling in one place results of related research and development, and chronicling tales of perseverance. If you weren’t already in awe of your amazing brain, you will be after reading his book.

Learning & the Brain Conference, April 2008

Yesss! My grant application for full funding to attend April’s Learning & the Brain conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts was approved. Twice I have attended pre-conference workshops, but never the entire conference. This conference’s theme is Rewiring the Brain: Using Brain Plasticity to Enhance Learning & Help Overcome Learning Disorders. Given my recent posts about plasticity, you can imagine my excitement upon discovering that one of the opening keynote talks will be given by none other than Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.

Another reason for my excitement is the Adult Brains – Learning & Training strand that will be running through a large number of the presentations, in addition to six sessions exclusively about this area. I have written innumerable posts about adult learning, and professional development, and am eager to attend as many of the related sessions as possible.

What a nice treat to find out in mid-winter. :-)

Plasticity: The Final Four

I am NOT referring to the NCCA’s final four games of the men’s college basketball championships, the opening rounds of which begin in March and are often referred to as March Madness! I AM referring to the final four chapters of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. These chapters are jam packed with science and philosophy.

An entire chapter is devoted to imagination and its role in shaping our brains. Perhaps you are familiar with the act of visualization as a means for improving in sports. Feel free to check your knowledge of this built-in brain tool with ChannelOne’s Head Game or read this New York Times article, FITNESS; Visualization: Does It Provide an Edge? As Doidge has written, it turns out “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.”

The topic of memory takes up another chapter, which is infused with references to Freud. Written clearly, it provides an excellent discussion of his theories, in particular transference and dreams, which equate to a “plastic view of memory.”

Rejuvenation is a word that always conjures up a positive image. Just take in this definition of “the phenomenon of vitality and freshness being restored” and how can you go wrong! Renew, refresh, repair… A stem cell is a cell that can make exact copies of itself. The brain has neuronal stem cells, so called because they can specialize as either neurons or glial cells. Doidge describes seeing these cells through a highly detailed microscope, and what he has to say about them is refreshing: “…stem cells don’t have to specialize but can continue to divide, producing exact replicas of themselves, and they can go on doing this endlessly without any signs of aging. … This rejuvenating process is called neurogenesis,” and it goes on until the day that we die.” The simple-sounding keys to promoting neurogenesis include novelty, physical exercise, and learning (something new). Heck, that gives license to do all sorts of interesting things as we age, possibly making the latter portion of aging more fun than the first portion ;-)

Doidge’s last chapter introduces Betty Edwards and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This is near and dear because in the summer of 2005 I took the one week Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop taught by her son, Brain Bommeisler, in New York City. I am rather proud of my accomplishments, and invite you to see for yourself that it is possible to (re)learn to draw, which translates to learning something new later in life, which translates to brain plasticity.

Given how many entries I have posted about Doidge’s book, it will not surprise you to know that I found the content stimulating, refreshing, and exciting. The possibilities for what there is yet to learn about our brains, and the ways in which we will uncover that information, are indeed exhilarating.