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The Write Way

Friday 1 July 2011

The Real Secret


On one of our frequent trips to the Gold Coast to visit friends, we stopped in at a shopping centre to pick up a few items to take along for our over-night stay... just some of Life's Essentials -- a selection of flash cheeses, a couple of bottles of Something Nice and one of those Death by Chocolate concoctions for dessert that have so many kilojoules that the numbers won't fit on the label.

In the course of wandering the centre, we passed a dress shop whose sweet siren song beckoned me in. Honestly, there was nothing I could do to resist, so the Love of My Life resigned himself to wait and sat down on one of those platform seats thoughtfully provided outside every dress shop so husbands can wait in relative comfort.

After a few happy minutes (all right, after 15 or 20 happy minutes) I finally emerged, full of apologies only to find the LoML in earnest conversation with another abandoned man. His new mate looked to be an elderly gentleman, perhaps in his late 70s, early 80s, and when I walked over, they were commiserating about how difficult it is to find a parking spot and the EG commented on how far he and his wife had had to walk from their car, and that it wouldn't have been much further to have left their car at home and walked from there.

That led, naturally, to a discussion of where they lived, how long they'd been there and so on. In the course of this chat, it emerged that far from being in his late 70s or early 80s, our EG was nearing the time when he'd get a letter from the Queen -- he was 98! His wife, he told us, had been a child-bride and was a mere babe at 96.

At that point, this very attractive and spritely lady emerged from the same shop that had lured me in, and like me, she too was empty-handed. She walked towards us and our new friend introduced her as his wife. She explained that she'd had one of those discount vouchers so beloved of retailers, and it promised her a 20% saving, but not, alas on sale items. As we spoke, she held the offending voucher in her hand. The front clearly proclaimed the "massive savings" to be had, while the back was covered in what our kids used to call "ant-writing" -- teensy print in a faint ink that covered the entire page.

She told us that the sales-girl had told her to check the expiry date if she wanted to take advantage of the discount. As I reached into my hand-bag to get my glasses so I could find the date for her amidst the ant-writing, this lady simply turned the paper over, held it at normal reading distance (not at the end of her outstretched arm) smiled and said, "Oh, that's good. I've still got a couple more weeks."

To say you could have knocked us over with a feather would be an understatement, because we all just assume these days that having used them for nearly a century, a person's eyes would be showing the strain. But this lady didn't have to squint or carry on, she just read the small print as easily as we'd been able to do in our 40s.

This called for further enquiry! So we invited them to have a coffee with us, hoping that they'd reveal the Secret to their excellent good health and joie de vivre...

And they did!

Put simply, it's this: they stay active and they keep challenging themselves.

No resting on their laurels or lazy retirement for this couple. Their latest challenge was line-dancing. The lady in question had a friend who had talked her into going and she had finally persuaded the Love of Her Life to go with her and they were having a ball.

It wasn't just the physical exercise they were getting, and it wasn't just the social stimulation of meeting new people in a new situation, it was also, and most importantly, that they had to tune in to the rhythm of each different dance, recognise melodies and tunes for each number and remember a complex sequence of steps to avoid bumping into fellow dancers. And in doing this they were stirring up their little grey cells, which, as we all know, are at the core of everything we do.

Once upon a time, most of us used to subscribe to the notion that if you damaged your brain cells that was it, and in University days, when we all thought we were invincible and that we had brain cells to spare, we'd joke that each glass of Rough Red meant another brain cell or two bit the dust, never to be seen again.

Common sense should have told us how wrong that was, after all why should the brain be any different from the rest of our bodies? Every other cell in our body comes with an efficient self-repairing kit, and now we know that the brain does, too.

Far from being a fixed and rigid organ, our brains have "plasticity," which means that they can constantly rewire themselves. And when you hear "plasticity," don't think of the finished product, the hard plastic in Tupperware or credit cards. Think instead of the origin in the Latin word plasticus, which means 'that may be moulded, shaped.' In other words, our brains can keep changing throughout our lives in both physical structure (anatomy) and functional organisation (physiology), from top to bottom.

All we need to do is provide the right experiences, which is precisely what our two friends from the shopping centre have been doing all their lives. They told us how they'd moved house frequently throughout their lives, enjoying the stimulation of new places and new people. They'd each changed careers a couple of times, so they had the challenge of learning new skills.

Both were also keen travellers and made sure they planned one "exciting" trip every year or so. In their younger days, they'd visited off-the-beaten track destinations and organised treks themselves, rather than signing up for tours, and even when in their youthful 90s, they told us, they preferred to just hop in their car and "follow their noses." This meant they could be flexible, changing course to visit a small Outback town because they'd heard there was going to be a Gumboot Tossing Competition or a Pumpkin Festival ... it didn't matter so much what it was, just that it was different and required some map-reading and navigation skills to get them there.

By living the way they had, this couple had avoided the dangers of middle age that can spell disaster for our little grey cells as we age!

Norman Doidge, in his fascinating book The Brain That Changes Itself, explains why middle age can be a danger time for our brains, "Our bodies aren't changing as they did in adolescence; we're more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention ... trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly a replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years."

Now how scary is that? To think that there's a part of your body you haven't exercised for fifty years!

So can you still do anything to help your poor rigid brain?

Absolutely yes!

And that's what makes this such an exciting field. Doidge quotes researcher Michael Merzenich who says, "Everything that you can see happen in a younger brain can happen in an older brain."

The key is to really focus on what you're doing, which is pretty simple when you find something that captures your imagination and fires your interest. And we've all been there and done that ... You find a topic that interests you and have to read everything you can about it, acquire all the accessories, talk about it to all your friends and spend every moment thinking about it until something shinier comes along, and then you're off following that new interest to the exclusion of all others.

And while we may at times have been told that this is wrong, in fact, it's one of the best things we can do for our brains. As Doidge writes, when commenting about someone who acts this way, "What might be thought of as dilettantism has the effect of keeping (you) constantly exposed to novelty and new subjects, which keeps the regulatory system for plasticity and dopamine from atrophying."

Dopamine (the feel-good hormone) "is the reward transmitter, because when we accomplish something -- run a race and win -- our brain triggers its release. Though exhausted, we get a surge of energy, exciting pleasure, and confidence and even raise our heads up and run a victory lap." 

Dopamine "is also involved in plastic change. The same surge of dopamine that thrills us also consolidates the neuronal connections responsible for the behaviors that led us to accomplish our goal."

So, if you choose an activity that you enjoy, you're not only having fun, you're also helping your brain by creating lots of new neural connections!

Right then ... what are you doing still sitting here? You should be out and about, following your latest interest ...

There are six qualities that any activity should have in order to help stimulate those little grey cells:

1. It should be new -- there's no point in the the same old, same old.

2. It should (naturally) be challenging -- if your brain is on autopilot, it's not creating any new connections.

3. It should have scope to become more challenging and more difficult as you master each stage.

4. It should exercise lots of different parts of your brain -- so the best activities force you to use as many of your senses as possible. 

5. It should be fun and rewarding -- you won't last long with anything that's dead boring.

6. It should be something that has a few surprises for you ... something that makes you smile and feel good about yourself.

If your interest is writing (and of course it is, since you're here with me now) try writing in a different genre, research an entirely new field for your non-fiction writing, do something different that challenges those little grey cells.

For anyone who has had a stroke or some other brain injury -- or knows someone who has -- this week's Little Something Extra has some truly amazing findings that will inspire you. 

And an oldie but a goodie about a writer ...

There was once a young man who, in his youth, professed his desire to become a great writer.

When asked to define great, he said, "I want to write something the whole world will read, something people will react to on a truly emotional level, something that will make them scream, cry, howl in pain and anger!"

He now works for Microsoft writing error messages.

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Never-Ending Story

An Ape that wants to play Hamlet after being type-cast as King Kong, a talking anvil and that rottweiller ... Dr Morgenes is still caught in the nightmare that is the casting couch. Help him find a plot!  Just click on the Comments button at the end of the entry to add your contribution. If you have friends who fancy themselves as writers, invite them to contribute (just forward this newsletter in its entirety to them).

This week's quiz:

Something to give your brain a bit more of a workout this week ... find the odd word out in each set. 

Think outside the box with these -- the difference isn't just with meaning. (And I hasten to confess that I found these lists plus the answers online ... but I'm not going to tell you where until next week.)

1. gun, boy, pay, rob, sin, new 

2. mail, dine, annoy, asset, sinned 

3. ethereal, withered, furthest, brethren, untether

4. defamation, deputation, persuasion, mendacious, numeration, precarious 

5. wind, slow, elope, tear 

6. aging, frump, steam, spied, valet 

7. algorithms, artichokes, alpenstock, admonished, avouchment, abridgment 

8. heritage, panorama, palisade, channels, paranoid, morosely, lemonade 

9. friends, end, woe, warpath, quashed, apt, ant, remarry, use, red, sampled, magnate, ape, ear, swooped 

10. pile, slim, balustrade, amen, neat, principle, naturalism, cane, dear, stalagmite, beastliest, item, bale, confidante, site, cognisance 

And since our focus is the brain, here are some more of my favourite Tom Swifties:

"Can I go looking for the Grail again?" Tom requested.

"Henry VIII," said Tom unthinkingly.

"We've taken over the government," Tom cooed.

"My parents are called Billy and Nanny," Tom kidded.

"It's half a score," Tom said often.

"I'd better repeat that SOS message," said Tom remorsefully.

"Parsley, sage and rosemary," said Tom timelessly.


Last week's quiz:

Match up these philosophical terms with their meanings:

aesthetics, determinism, antinomy, meme, apodeictic, eudaemonism, dialectic, metaphysics, existentialism, materialism

1. system of ethics which defines and enforces moral obligation by its relation to happiness or personal well-being; approach to ethics that aims at the achievement of a good life; concerned with satisfying the objective conditions of happiness rather than with pursuing the subjective experience of pleasure - EUDAEMONISM

2. the characteristic feature of any proposition that states what is necessary (or impossible), perfectly certain (or inconceivable), or demonstrably true (or false); of a proposition that it's necessarily true or logically certain - APODEICTIC

3. branch of philosophy concerned with providing a comprehensive account of the most general features of reality as a whole; the study of being as such; concerned with the existence and nature of minds, bodies, god, space, time, causality, unity, identity and the world; the philosophical study of being and knowing - METAPHYSICS

4. the branch of philosophy dealing with beauty and taste - AESTHETICS

5. a 20th-century philosophical movement; assumes that people are entirely free and thus responsible for what they make of themselves; emphasises the primacy of individual existence over any presumed natural essence for human beings; belief that the fact of existence as a human being entails both unqualified freedom to make of yourself whatever you will and the awesome responsibility of employing that freedom appropriately, without being driven by anxiety toward escaping into the self-deception of any conventional set of rules for behaviour, even though the entire project may turn out to be absurd  - EXISTENTIALISM

6. belief that, since each momentary state of the world entails all of its future states, it must be possible (in principle) to offer a causal explanation for everything that happens. When applied to human behavior, this belief is sometimes supposed to be incompatible with the freedom required for moral responsibility. The most extreme variety is fatalism - DETERMINISM

7. a contradiction between two statements that seem equally reasonable - ANTINOMY

8. self-replicating unit of cultural meaning, as understood by biologist Richard Dawkins. Transmitted socially among individuals of different generations, evolve through processes of mutation and natural selection. (Thus, for example, the jingles sung by children while skipping rope, the conventional standards for fashionable dress, and the notions comprising the "common-sense" view of the world are all passed on through time, gradually modifying without any deliberate guidance)  - MEME

9. belief that only physical things truly exist; claim (or promise) to explain every apparent instance of a mental phenomenon as a feature of some physical object; philosophical theory that matter is the only reality - MATERIALSIM

10. any formal system of reasoning that arrives at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments; a contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction - DIALECTIC

Here's a story about being wise ...

A wealthy old lady decides to go on a photo safari in Africa, taking her faithful old poodle, Cuddles, along for company. One day Cuddles starts chasing butterflies and before long, realizes she's lost. Wandering about, she notices a leopard heading rapidly in her direction with the intention of having her for lunch.

Noticing some bones on the ground close by, she immediately settles down to chew on the bones with her back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the old poodle exclaims loudly, "That was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here?"

Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him and he slinks away into the trees. "Whew!" says the leopard, "That was close! That old poodle nearly had me!"

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. The old poodle sees him heading after the leopard at great speed and figures that something must be up. The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard.

The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, "Here, monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"

The old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back. Instead of running, she sits down with her back to her attackers, pretending she hasn't seen them yet. Just when they get close enough to hear, the old poodle says: "Where's that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!"

Moral of this story: Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill! Brilliance only comes with age and experience!

A Little Something Extra

We chatted earlier about some of the things you can do to make sure your brain doesn't sit idle, but did you know that it's also possible to fix problems that were once considered unfixable?

In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge discusses research done in the 1960s by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel that actually shows how the brain can rewire itself, so that parts normally used for seeing, can be used for processing the input from other senses in the blind. So when you hear that blind people have an acute sense of hearing, it's true. 

Scientist and rehabilitation physician, Paul Bach-Y-Rita took this even further and invented a device, "that enabled people who had been blind from birth to see." You have to read Doidge's account of this remarkable device -- it's difficult for those of us who can see to even imagine the hope this must give to people who can't. 

But even more astounding and wonderful, is the concept that brains once considered irreversibly damaged, as in people who have had a stroke, can also be rewired!

The brother of this same scientist hit upon a way to retrain the brain after his father had a stroke "that paralysed his face and half of his body and left him unable to speak." His father was given the regulation 4-week rehab therapy and sent home. 

Paul's brother, George, reasoned that since his father couldn't walk, he'd go back to basics and teach him how to crawl first. He followed this same method with all the basic skills, teaching his father the same way you'd teach a baby -- with lots of simple games and activities that were repeated until mastered.

And "(at) the end of a year his recovery was complete enough for Pedro [his father], now sixty-eight, to start full-time teaching again." 

Truly amazing.

But wait! There's more!

It's not just people who have had strokes recently who can be helped -- using these same re-training steps, "even patients who had their strokes, on average, more than four years before beginning [therapy] benefited significantly."

You might be sitting there raising your eyebrows about now, thinking I've finally gone too far and that I'm telling lies (like our subject last week). But it's all true and scientifically verifiable. 

This treatment works because of the plasticity of the brain, and if you're still sceptical that a massively damaged brain can rewire itself to resume full functionality, stop for a moment and consider how many little grey cells you actually have.

Doidge writes, "As the scientist Gerald Edelman has pointed out, the human cortex alone has 30 billion neurons and is capable of making 1 million billion synaptic connections. ... If we consider the number of possible neural circuits, we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros."

And that's just one part of your brain!

So it stands to reason that if part of the brain has been damaged, there's plenty of scope for rewiring.

You really have to get hold of this book -- there's so much fascinating information. I've really only touched on a couple of ways we can help our brains rewire and change.

As you know, I always love a happy ending, and Doidge's book holds so much hope for so many. 

Read it now: (If you can't get your own copy, go to your library and borrow it as soon as possible!)

Oxymoron of the week: political brain

Word of the week: Neuroplasticity (n) the brain's natural ability to form new connections in order to compensate for injury or changes in one's environment; referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment. Plasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes involved in learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury.

Brain reorganization takes place by mechanisms such as "axonal sprouting" in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged axons can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function.

For example, if one hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the intact hemisphere may take over some of its functions. The brain compensates for damage in effect by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity.

This week's Latin phrase seems strangely apt ...

Meum cerebrum nocet

[MAY-oom kay-RAY-broom NOH-kayt]

(My brain hurts.)

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? Click here for these and more: 

Recommend this page to other writers by clicking the Recommend it! button below, then see what pages others are recommending here.

Kind regards,


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