On December 31, the last day of 2010, I read an interesting OpEd piece in the New York Times. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist I first encountered through his 1970 book on migraine, wrote a wonderful essay about the plasticity of the human brain and the importance of lifelong learning:
All through my biology courses in high school and college, it was accepted that, while the rest of the cells in our bodies were constantly being replaces with newer versions of themselves, our brains were different. Once our neurons matured, they stayed there without change until they gradually died off as we aged. What we had at age two was all we ever got.
I didn’t believe it.
I was learning new stuff every day. One day, I’d struggle preparing a few measures of a piece for my piano lesson, wondering if I’d ever get it right. A few weeks later, I could play it at my recital without thinking about it. One week, I’d research a history paper in the library, four hours every evening after my classes were over. By the end of the week, my brain felt different—larger—and my mind seemed to make connections that hadn’t been obvious from the reference books I read.
More recently, as I’ve grown older, I’ve read a slew of articles and books about “the aging brain.” Everything I most feared was there: loss of mental agility, the gradual onset of some form of dementia, the inevitability of lost skills and memories. Except…it isn’t necessarily so.
Oliver Sacks has written many books about the extraordinary ability of the human mind to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, from his 1973 Awakenings to his 2010 book The Mind’s Eye. I’ve read them all, but saw them as case studies of unique events happening to individual people. His NYT essay makes it clear that ordinary people also have the ability to forge new brain pathways as we acquire new skills and explore new ideas — as we learn.
I learned something new today. In fact, I learned several new things. And any day I learn something, no matter what disasters happen, is a good day.
I learned something today.