Brain Plasticity Before it Was Cool

The truly important learning is to be able to do the thing you already know in another way. The more ways you have to do the things you know, the freer is your choice. And the freer your choice, the more you’re a human being.
— Moshe Feldenkrais, Master Moves, p. 20


We've all heard that brain plasticity is the basis for learning and memory. And, most of us who've read the paper or perused the internet in the last decade know that novelty is what enhances our neural responses. In fact, it is recommended that to improve our brain plasticity we should challenge visual and spatial memory and stimulate the senses. There are numerous statistics and studies on this. A 2002 JAMA study of eight hundred adults over age 65 showed that engaging in novel ways of using the brain reduced working memory loss by 60% and global cognition loss by 47%. It goes on and on.

So do we do more crossword puzzles or learn swing dancing? The fastest, most direct way I've found to challenge my brain is to get on the floor and work my way through a Feldenkrais lesson. Feldenkrais lessons are inherently neurological, connecting a neurological event with a mechanical one. Feldenkais is not about the joints, muscles, or even about movement. It is about connecting thought and action, intention and manifestation, awareness and orientation. We can all move, that's obvious, we get through the day, the question is, how? Even now, after doing Feldenkrais for seventeen years, I'm still amazed at what it feels like to make new connections.

Last year the New York Times reported on the enormous Midus study sponsored by the National Institute on Agingsponsored by the National Institute on Aging sponsored by the National Institute on Aging sponsored by the National Institute on Agingof 7,000 adults between theages of 25 and 74. The article is called, "A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond." The conclusion so far: if you do more to challenge your brain, you do better on intelligence tests. It seems everyone, regardless of education or personal history, can improve.
 
In The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge talks about a stroke victim who recovers the ability to walk although 97% of the nerves from the cerebral cortex to the spine were destroyed. I know someone with a numb right leg who was recently in the hospital where a nurse said, "so, you're in a wheelchair, then?" The nurse could not conceive of someone walking without feeling their leg. However, the brain can make connections in the motor cortex regardless of whether there is feeling in the leg. I am sad that some medical professionals still struggle with the remarkable ability of the brain to make connections.

Yet, it has been proven over and over again. I have many clients with severe neuropathy who drive a car, walk around, and function at a high level. Unfortunately, if someone tells you you won't walk again after severe injury or surgery, some believe it and some don't. You need to believe you can walk or you won't do it, quite literally. At this severe level, and at every other level in fact, relearning to move is deeply neurological and fundamentally linked to your sense of self---all things Feldenkrais addresses.

What is Human?

In the early seventies Moshe Feldenkrais taught a series of classes in San Fransicso. In one of them he gave a lecture on what is human. He believed we never stop learning back when neurologists believed the brain was fixed. He preceded the brain plasticity revolution by several decades. He says (I'm paraphrasing),

 

Whatdoes it mean to be human? Humans learn. This is the difference between a human and a non-human being: we have the freedom to make the connections in the brain through our own experience. Take birdsong. Birds know how to do it from birth. No human being can do that naturally like a bird, but we can learn how to do it. We have a brain in which everything can be connected in any way we like, depending on our history.

 

Because every human individual has to learn from scratch--and make their own mistakes--we have tremendous variability. Our brain is eminently structured for learning, which means we can change our way of responding to the same stimulus. The more responses we have available, the greater is our freedom of choice. We don't have freedom of choice if we can do a thing in just two ways. That's no choice. If we have three, five, or ten ways, then we can choose to do it the way we like.

Freedom of choice comes from our ability to learn. Learning of skills, math, music, or swimming are all different, but all have the use of the brain in common, that is to say, wiring in something you couldn't do before. Knowing how you learn is the most important thing in being a real human.