Spring into new growth

Waxing Lyrical column by J. Kathleen Thompson, April 6 Grand Forks Gazette.

Do you know anyone who is maladaptive to spring?  Who shudders at the thought of more warmth, sunlight, birdsong and new bursts of colour in their garden?  Who rankles at the increased activity in their neighbourhood? Who are completely oblivious to the seismic shift that happens to our outlooks and our energy when those first warm shafts of sun begin to loosen the clasp of winter? If so, doubtful they can remain that curmudgeonly for the entire season!

Spring, to me, has always been synonymous with transition and change. A good time not only to reorder the closets and garage, but reassess one’s priorities and invite new challenges into one’s life. To launch into a daring house reno, a walk across Spain, to take up tennis, to get serious about learning that instrument or language you’ve always wanted to learn. Each require a bit of courage, belief and a lot of dedication and determination, but the outcomes— the new kitchen, proficiency or skill—fulsomely reward our grit and efforts. And new findings in brain research confirm that success is more widely available to all of us at any age than we originally thought.

For centuries the brain was thought to be a fairly fixed and unregenerative organ, but in the late 20th century, studies began demonstrating that many aspects of the brain remain changeable or “plastic” throughout our lives. This potential for the brain to reorganize itself as it needs became known as neuroplasticity. Psychiatrist and pyschoanalyst Richard Doidge found ample proof for this theory and published his findings in The Brain that Changes Itself. Through a variety of cognitive and muscular exercises, heat, light and sound therapies and visualization techniques, Doidge and fellow researchers   have helped numerous patients overcome disorders by stimulating unused circuits of the brain, thereby building new neural networks.

Researchers at St. Mary’s College in California has come to similar conclusions about adult learners: “As adults we have well-trodden pathways in our synapses—we have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up so that new synapses grow. Stretching the brain best keeps it in tune—you need to push yourself, to get out of your comfort zone to truly nourish the brain.” Continuing studies found that long-lasting change in the setting up of new neural connections take at least ten months of daily repeated practise.

So if brain cells and connections can grow and learning can improve throughout our life span provided we are dedicated to it, what is preventing us from trying? My own experience into language learning is yet another testimonial for the plasticity of our brain. Not wanting to be one of those insensitive travellers who presume that the whole world will understand you if you speak in English, I have attempted to become at least politely conversant in languages of many countries I have visited. Given that Spanish is a beautiful language, spoken by 400 million people around the globe, and that most of these speakers live in warm and sunny countries as close as a five-hour flight from us, it has been the language I have focused on the most. And while my attempts to learn it had sputtered along for years, it was not until I was in my ‘senior years’ that I began to gain confidence in conversation.

So, hats off to all you multilinguists and adult learners out there! And once you’ve gained this “mental capital,” don’t be surprised if the new neural pathways charged stir up recollections of faces, names, recipes, lyrics and facts that have eluded you for so long. And that you’ll be taking up Greek next!

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