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New Year’s Day is traditionally a time to take stock. And I can’t help but notice that my stock hasn’t changed much, despite a lifetime of resolutions to fix what ails me.

My house is as dirty as it ever was. I still don’t keep in touch with my friends. As ever, the bills don’t get paid on time. I continue to make the same three meals over and over. I find ever more imaginative ways to avoid writing. The ten extra pounds I’ve been carrying around for god knows how long have settled in, and a couple of their friends have joined the party. And let’s not talk about the rags that are still passing for underpants.

Take my stock … please!

Oliver Sacks (image borrowed from Columbia University)

This year, though, neurologist Oliver Sacks has given me an out. He has an op-ed in today’s New York Times called “This Year, Change Your Mind,” about the plasticity of the adult brain.

Until recently, the consensus in the neurological community was that forming neural pathways was a young person’s game. Once you’re an adult, the jig is up. You’re destined to think along those same pathways for the rest of your life.

This theory of brain development seems entirely plausible. When I made a concerted effort, a few years back, to learn French, I couldn’t for the life of me form the neural pathways necessary for even a rudimentary conversation. Our trip to Provence had me getting by on phrases with the complexity of, say, “Ou est le fromage?”

I’m going to have to find another excuse for my lousy French, though, because we understand brains better now. It’s apparently never too late to form new neural connections, carve out new pathways, even generate new cells. The way you go about doing this, Sacks explains, is by learning new skills:

Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow. … Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.

He specifically mentions beekeeping! And if beekeeping counts, I’m figuring hunting does, too. And fishing. And raising turkeys. If it’s attempting new skills that keeps you neurologically fit, I’m a cognitive Jack LaLanne!

This is non-trivial consolation for the slowness with which I am acquiring said skills, and the boneheaded mistakes I’ve made along the way. That there is value in making the attempt, day after day, to do things you’ve never done before takes the sting out of setbacks.

So to hell with vacuuming and underwear! This year, I’m focusing on cognitive fitness. Maybe I can even think of a way to lose those damn ten pounds.

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Comments

  1. Did it ever occur to you that maybe your head is where the extra ten is lodged? That would be something someone in my family would have said, so I just had to pass it along. It is not true, of course. You remind me that I wanted to add ‘lose another ten pounds’ to my list of goals for this year. Not that I’m only ten pounds overweight- I’m much more than that- it’s just that ten pound increments seem more doable. I lost ten last year, which I’ve managed to keep off, but have no earthly recollection of how I did it.

    I saw a thing on the news with Oliver Sacks the other night- he evidently suffers from a brain condition that renders everyone’s face the same, so he can’t distinguish people he knows from people he doesn’t, which I thought interesting.

    The fact that you seem to make a lot of mistakes paints you as an experiential learner. Mistakes are entirely okay, as long as you learn from them and don’t repeat them. I can learn from reading, so when I make a mistake, I very often repeat the same mistake. Maybe a couple of times before I get it. Maybe that’s why I was forty-one before I married for the first time.

    I hope that 2011 is full of very good and happy times for you and Kevin. And that your brain gets a good workout. And that you get new underwear.

  2. I love this post, and can’t wait to read the NYT article. I feel like I’ve been getting foggier and foggier as I’ve gotten older, and yet I conveniently forget or disregard things that my friends and colleagues see as accomplishments. I really admire what you and Kevin have done…not many people have the courage to try a whole bunch of new things at once. Not only that, you’re succeeding! And…(I know you’re not supposed to start a sentence with “and”)…I think you converted those 10 lbs into muscle, with all of the digging, lifting, building you’ve been doing! Can’t wait to see what 2011 brings for you and Kevin. cheers!

  3. Well there goes my excuse for being totally unable to operate any of the electronic gadgets my children own… (DS got a camera for Christmas, and was explaining to me how it operates in words of one syllable. He’s 10.)

    Have you read any of Oliver Sacks’ books? I did enjoy The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I know he gets dismissed as a bit of a celebrity neurologist, but I found it interesting when I read it years ago.

    Happy New Year, and good luck with your cognitive fitness. Your recurring resolutions sound very similar to mine…

  4. I read the New Yorker article that Paula alludes to, with great relief. I am now a self-diagnosed prosopagnosia suffer. God bless Dr. Sacks for always coming up with a cognitive ‘out’ for my mental laziness.

    I share all your resolution failures too, bar getting new undies for Christmas. (Mike said he got tired of watching me sew the underwiring back into the old ones. And that ‘chewing gun white’ is not a good colour for pants.)

    Hooray then for cognitive plasticity in older people! However, if I see you pulling your boat out to sea by a rope between your teeth, I’ll know you’ve gone too far…

  5. Although quite possibly TMI about someone’s underpants, this is definitely good news for my aging brain. A wonderful way to begin the day! With this reassurance and at least one more cup of coffee, I’m almost ready to go.

  6. Oh, I love Oliver Sacks! Saw him give a lecture at Caltech several years ago. Do you listen to Radiolab? He’s often a guest on their show (and I think you’d dig the show anyway). Resolutions or not, I think you’re doing a fine job of establishing more neural connections and you do it in a way that’s cool and fun to follow 🙂 Happy new year, my dear Tamar. I like whatever you do. I like you! Here is to a great year. xoxo

  7. Tim Gunn says “undergarments are the foundation to every woman’s wardrobe.” So even though he doesn’t usually find neoprene waders in most woman’s closet the basic tenent is sound. Just saying…

  8. Face it, old undies are more comfortable. I wear mine until the perished elastic breaks out from the seam and doesn’t come off with the pair. That was until I bought a pair of “Bruno Banani” briefs from a shop for, uh, more fashion conscious men. These are *wonderful*. From this I realised that perhaps the old saggy baggy threadbare cotton togs are not the be-all and end-all.

    I too have failed at learning language. I spent two years in Switzerland, attended German classes every week, even a 10 week intensive course (3 mornings a week), and I can barely do better than a 3 year old. Once I learned “Tut mir leid, Mein Deutsch ist ganz Scheisse”, I was pretty right though.

    For the life of me, I don’t know why learning a language should be so difficult. Mathematics, Physics, Engineering – no problem. Telling someone what you did on the weekend – damn near impossible.

  9. I see I’m not the only Oliver Sacks fan out there. I think brain chemistry is fascinating.

    As for the whole underwear thing, Al goes and accuses ME of TMI — but then Kingsley weighs in! (By the way, Kingsley, my father always says the only thing you need to know in German is, “Zwei Bier, bitte.”)

    Here’s to hoping 2011 is a good year for all of us. I hope you’ll stay with me, and continue to weigh in. Without astute commenters, Starving’s just not the same.

  10. What a great article to start off the new year!

    I completed my bachelors in french literature, and learned most of the language as an adult. My parents didn’t put me in french immersion (I might still have some resentment around this!) and so, my love for french was put on hold until I could take as many french classes as I wanted in french universities across the country.

    If it makes you feel any better, the options we are given for learning languages are far from the language learning environment of childhood… and I’ll bet if you put your self in a similar situation now, you would be fluent in less than 6 months.

    I have taken on quite a few new skills to get myself out of the tiny part of my brain that is communications and marketing…. poi, contact juggling and bellydancing 🙂 And i learn a heck of a lot faster when I’m not putting pressure on myself to be good right away. So for me, its not the fact that I’m an adult learner, its my affliction as a perfectionist!

    Thanks for the road in. I look forward to wandering down it.

  11. OH! And check out flattr.com… I have a little pile of money I’m wanting to flattr people with, and you’re on my list 🙂 Thanks for all the exploring you do!

  12. My sister (a graduate psychology student) loved The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat.

    I personally love the fact/ the thought that we *can* always form new neural pathways. Although I’ve got to admit, it does seem to get harder with age. Learning German, which I started at age 25… SO much harder than learning French, starting aged 10. Don’t even get me started on this one.

    Unfortunately this means that when presented with a new gadget I can’t blame age for my inability, only mental laziness, right? and what worse sort of laziness could there be…