Let’s Hear it for Brain Plasticity

Okay, this post has very little to do with writing and very little to do with actual science. You’ll find a tiny reference here and there to either, maybe, but don’t look for any big revelations. This is mostly a gratitude post.

Just under a year ago, I hit what I consider to be my middle-age. (Both of my grandmothers lived past 90, and both of them smoked when they were younger, so with age-inflation and my never having lit up a cigarette in my life, I have done some generous math and pushed things out a bit. Hey, optimism is a factor of long-life, right?)

Anyhoo…So far, this side of the middle-age line, along with the two decades or so before, seriously top the previous decades for growth, self-understanding, self-change and just all-around happiness. And this from someone who had a very good childhood.

But I’ve been thinking about one aspect of this getting older thing a little lately. Prompted, probably, by my re-realizing some things about myself as a writer and about my writing process. Things I thought I had figured out, yeah, decades ago. Things that, apparently, I’m having to relearn again, but in a different way–maybe in a more open way, maybe in a more flexible way. As in, let’s try this again and see what happens; not as in, I’ve got it now and nothing about it will ever change again. (Yeah, right.) Also, I’m currently letting my husband borrow my Kindle, to see if he wants one, and I downloaded a couple of books for him from the library–one on brain plasticity, a topic he loves.

Here’s the thing. I remember a time when all the talk about brain growth was dedicated to young brains. I remember when people, if not scientists, knew that brains stopped growing and changing after a certain–not that old–age. I remember how amazed people were when they found out that some teens don’t develop the long-term planning areas of their brain until, gasp!, in their twenties. And I remember reaching my forties and discovering–both by reading and by experience–that I could take active steps to set new and better patterns into my brain, that I could regroove it.

Do you want to talk relief? Do you want to go into all the ways that my brain and I worked together, in my youth, to keep my life narrow and limited? Do you want to know how magical it is that, these days, my brain and I can exchange peptalks that keep us from making those kinds of choices ? I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying it’s not painful. Hey, we’re talking about carving out new neural pathways. Of course, it’s tricky.

But it’s so possible.

It seems to me that people are talking about this like it’s a new discovery, like it took science to give us the truth. Or does it just seem new to me, because when I was younger I didn’t care so much about what an “older” brain was like? Go talk to my parents, and they’ll tell you about life changes, life hits, adapting, and taking on new adventures. Put my dad on a plane to another country; okay, just watch him put himself on that plane, and watch him eat whatever food is on the menu (yes, even rotted shark in Iceland) and ride whatever animal there is an opportunity to climb onto (yes, elephants and camels). This last trip, he got on a motorcycle, for the first time ever in what’s getting close to eight decades of life. (I know, not an animal, but he didn’t even know the driver!)

Why did I think, all those years ago, that I was set? That the person I was then was the person I would be forever? Is that how teens feel today? Is that what makes being young so tough?

Yes, sure, I could do a Cherry Drop (with help) off the monkey bars, and I could sleep till noon on Saturday without cracking an eyelid, and I could eat bowls and bowls of Lucky Charms without worrying about a sugar crash. And, during those years, I guess my brain had to be growing. But there were years when it felt like any movement it was making was circular, spinning and spinning in the same way of thinking.

I’ll take the now. I’ll take the stiffer joints and the semi-constant sleep-deprivation and the lower-carb diet. Because with that all seems to come the possibility of bumping the record needle out of its groove and seeing where it will land.

Frankly, brain plasticity rocks.

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