I have been a fan of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s writing for many decades. One of the things I like most about his writing is its blend of scientific information and incredible optimism. His subjects had serious conditions that clearly impaired their capacity to move, think, feel, and communicate in what we might think of as “normal” ways, yet he wrote about them as subjects full of meaning, depth, and potential, people worth knowing rather than tragic victims. And he wrote about how these patients might inspire others to lead fuller and happier lives.
I am in the middle of re-reading his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain right now, but what I want to share is from an editorial he wrote for the New York Times at the end of 2010, called “Don’t Leave Learning to the Young.” It begins:
New Year’s resolutions often have to do with eating more healthfully, going to the gym more, giving up sweets, losing weight — all admirable goals aimed at improving one’s physical health. Most people, though, do not realize that they can strengthen their brains in a similar way.
While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas — especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older. In fact, the brain has an astonishing ability to rebound from damage — even from something as devastating as the loss of sight or hearing. As a physician who treats patients with neurological conditions, I see this happen all the time.
He goes on to describe patients whose blindness, deafness, or paralysis have lead them to develop extraordinary abilities with other senses or memory. He asserts that
Neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to create new pathways — is a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability. But it can also be part of everyday life for all of us. While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.
This process is a lifelong one, which he urges us to exert:
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, in the coming year and those to follow. 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.
Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for those and many other wise and inspiring words. May you rest in peace.