NEUROPLASTICITY: LEARNING AT EVERY AGE WITH DR. STRAUSS
The human brain is the most complex object in the observable universe.
At its best, it can question why an apple always falls down when it falls from a tree. It can subsequently learn that all things on earth (and in the universe) are subject to a mysterious force called gravity, and therefore all things on earth will move as closely as it can get to the center of the earth. It can invent an airplane or a rocket ship to escape the force of that gravity. It can create such machines and make them fly. It can interpret music or art or food or fashion. It can communicate its questions, knowledge, inventions and interpretation to other brains. Finally it can choose, most importantly, between right and wrong.
This in my mind is best seen in the work of Victor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor who wrote this afterwards: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: “The salvation of Man is through love and in love”.
Beautiful is it not? And true.
I want all of Sparkling Hill’s guests to be able to be their best selves, and the surest way for us all is to maximize our brain plasticity. In this way, we can be like the dad of one of my childhood friends. Last year at age 85, he obtained his 17th post-secondary degree. He is fully fluent in Latin and can speak it as well. He mastered that in his forties.
This series will therefore focus on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to lay down new networks and grow brain cells in order to conquer new tasks and learn new skills.
Today we will review what we currently know about neuroplasticity.
Contrary to a belief held by neurologists since the 1960s, adults retain the ability to shape their brain through neuroplasticity. We feel emotionally good when our brain is practicing its neuroplasticity. (Think about how great it felt the first time you managed to go down the bunny hill without spilling from your skis). This process protects against dementia (or senility). It can overcome most of the damage created by a stroke, depending where the stroke was suffered.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors that works against the adult brain developing in such a way. The adult brain is programmed to conserve energy, including the energy necessary to create new pathways. When we are stressed, we cannot learn. When things are unclear or when we are socially stressed out, new learning is very difficult to attain. Our working memory is quite small, and this means neuroplasticity can happen only in baby steps, as we can only absorb small amounts of new information at a time. Finally when we are multitasking, it is very difficult to learn something new.
Despite all of this, we have a vast treasure trove of over a hundred billion nerve cells in our brain, and as each nerve cell has over 40,000 connections, we have about a thousand trillion connections in our brain. That is a higher number than the number of stars in the known universe!
Next time, we will look what we can do with this vast potential living between the ears of every one of us.
About Dr. Pieter Strauss:
Dr. Strauss was born in South Africa, emigrating to Canada with his family in 1995. He has a private practice in the Fraser Valley and sees patients with mental health issues in his community. He was Head of the Psychiatry Department at a regional hospital with a staff of nine psychiatrists until last year when he decided to focus on his practice and his work at our hotel. Dr. Strauss has always been interested in long-term human relationships and envisioned enhancing relationships.