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!
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.