Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Starting Young: Neuroplasticity

The record is now 3-10, maybe worse. We could use a Michael Jordon.

It's nice to have talent. Every once in awhile I'll treat a couple in which one partner will be working on the other, wishing the other would strive to improve. People in recovery call this working someone else's program, meaning avoiding work on the self. The language is of the "should" variety and has a "you" at the top of the sentence.
You should call that guy about the other job.
You should be taking guitar lessons.
You should be going back to school.
Readers know that a good relationship is supportive, meaning if your spouse wants to learn how to jump out of airplanes for fun, assuming that it's safe, that maybe you shouldn't be holding him or her back.

That's probably not a good example. If FD tells me, I think I want to take up skydiving, and I say, That's GREAT! I'm pretty sure he'll think I'm trying to get rid of him.

In general we support self-actualizing efforts on the part of people we love, even encourage them. But we know it's a mistake to NAG a partner to self-actualize.

One can hint, but not nag.

If one intends to encourage a partner to learn a new skill and that partner is past a certain age, it is a prescription for failure.

One would not suggest to a bored middle-aged human, You really should learn piano, you've always wanted to play!

Why not?

Because neuroplasticity will take a person only so far, is why. Take the man in the picture above, Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. He decided to leave the public eye in 1992 and retire from the game. Soon after retiring from basketball, he took up baseball.

He had always liked baseball but wasn't very good, so he played for a minor league team, hoping to get better. With a .200 batting average (that's really low, if you don't know baseball stats) he ultimately quit the farm team and returned to basketball.

The Nike ads, of course, followed him. Here's a quick story from David Halvestam's book, Playing for Keeps.

Mr. Jordan returned to basketball and played for the Indiana Pacers. He let the talented advertizer, Jim Riswold, film television ads that essentially made fun of his lack of baseball prowess. In one he's at a truck-stop diner, living out the grim blue-collar life of a minor league baseball player. He sits at the counter of the greasy spoon, lonely and sad.

A friendly, middle-aged black waitress tries to cheer him up and gives him advice saying, “Honey, there ain’t no curve balls back in the NBA”

Riswold loved it, Jordan approved it, but the Nike people didn’t go with it.

The point is,

Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player in history, a record-breaking athlete, decided to pick up baseball relatively late in life. It didn't work out.

Harold Klawans, a versatile contemporary neurologist, author of several articles and books, explains why Michael couldn't hack it in his book, Why Michael Couldn't Hit. It's all about age.

Maybe you've noticed that as a kid you picked up new languages quickly.

FD, for example, taught our youngest son Rashi script when Little One was five years old. Rashi commentary is in very small print, found in margins of Talmudic texts. The script looks like Hebrew but it's not; the letters are mysterious even to many Israelis; it's hard language to learn at any age. Rashi wrote Hebrew in a different script on purpose so that those who wanted to harass, rape, or kill Jews on the basis of texts wouldn't read what he had to say, misquote or misunderstand, threaten lives and livelihood, and burn holy books. That happened all the time in his day.

It's best to learn Rashi script young for the same reason that it's best to learn all languages young. Some of us learned French. Others Spanish, Latin, or Greek. FD learned music. And Spanish. As a physician, both serve him well.

These days we encourage children to learn everything, and many seem up to task. It's easier to learn as children because childhood is the time that the brain has the greatest plasticity, meaning it's able to adjust, add new information, incorporate new concepts.

Don't take it from me. Here's a direct quote from Washington University's website on neuroscience for kids. For more information, click, here)

Neuroplasticity is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways
based upon new experiences. As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills
through instruction or experience. In order to learn or memorize a fact or
skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent
the new knowledge. The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is
known as

As we age, we think that plasticity hardens up a bit. It gets harder to learn.

But neuroplasticity doesn't disppear entirely, which explains why someone like my father (87) can pick up computer skills. We can still learn at any age, just not as well when we're older.

So encouraging our kids to learn as much as possible is functional unless the stress gives them headaches and ulcers, in which case we might consider chilling out a bit. We want them to establish neurological pathways, templates of information in the brain, although these pathways may atrophy over time with disuse.

As adults, should we wish to call upon old skills, we might need to refresh the old pathways, to review what we initially incorporated as younger beings. But it's easier to refresh than to start from scratch.

Once you've learned a piano piece as a child, for example, you can pick it up mid-life, even late in life. You can then practice it, tweak it, and add your personality to the performance. And you appreciate the piece much, much, much more than you did as a child of seven when it was all so much drudgery.

But learning every good boy does fine, or do re me at fifty might get tricky.

You don't want to stress the kids? Fine. But take a look at little Tammy and tell me she's not unbelievably wonderful. And why do I feel this kid isn't going to be bored after school and that her mother won't have to worry that she's getting into mischief? Okay, okay, we need not generalize that far, perhaps she will. I just don't think so.

That's the J S Bach Italian Concerto. I hear it a couple of times a day because FD is getting ready for his recital. And you know? It sounds just a little different each time.



Cham said...

how old is this girl? sheeeesh!

Gottagopractice said...

Read in one light, that is an incredibly discouraging post. And I suppose in that light you are correct - if you want to be the "best" in an area that requires considerable motor, or possibly cognitive, skill, the horse leaves the barn at puberty.

However, in a different light, if your goal is to enjoy a new activity or perhaps just learning something new, it's never too late. And the best music is participatory.

Blancodeviosa said...

i love the title of your blog. ain't that the truth!!!

Midwife with a Knife said...

I sort of agree and disagree with you. While it is harder to learn new things later in life, it isn't impossible. And there are things you can do to help maintain neural plasticity. Continuing to learn new things seems to be a transferrable skill.

I also know people who went to medical school later in life (say 30's-40's) which isn't THAT later, but you're also no longer a kid at that age. And most of them do just fine (although it does appear to be more work for them than for the 20 year olds).

My last comment is that sometimes picking up a new skill is something you do for the joy of it, not to be good at it. That's my relationship with pottery. I love how the clay feels between my hands, I like having built something. I like the wheel, and I love playing with colors in glazes. Sure, nothing I make is really any good by any definition, but I enjoy it. And it's 3 hours a week (except I haven't been in 3 weeks due to a combo of holidays, call schedules, etc.) where I forget about the hospital, medicine, etc. So, even though I'll never get out of the "minor leagues" of pottery, I'm glad I took it up. Admittedly, I don't delude myself into thinking that I'm leaving medicine to become a professional potter (although I do day dream about having my own studio complete with kiln one day)

SS said...

But what if you're on the receiving end of the "you should"s, and "when will you"s, and they are all true? Then what? How do you respond, yet still avoid a conflict?

muse said...

Great points.
My daughter started teaching her 4 year old letters, and the 2 year old has learned a lot, too.
Funny about how people think only young people can handle technology. My mother, 82, not only uses a cell phone at home, but quickly learned how to use a different one when visiting us.
Today I confiscated a cell phone from a student during the test. He was surprised to find it off, when I returned it. It never occurred to him that I could figure it out.

So, what IS in a heart? said...

I think it depends on the skill though. Writing, for example, is a craft that tends to improve with age with the best writers generally being middle aged. Sure, there's exceptions, but the norm is that the older a writer is, the better they tend to be. But, that's just with crafts that have little to do with the "power of youth".

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I have a friend to whom I'm going to send this post. She's full of a lot of anger at life and people around her for what everybody else is NOT doing that she thinks they should do.

Now I'm going to have to go look up at what point our brains stop being as flexible.

Very interesting post as always, TherapyDog.


(Seems Google has blocked all commenters except other Bloggers)

therapydoc said...

Hi everybody. I'm going to answer, seriously, but can't right now. Except for Cham's ?, how old is Tammy Yu. We think she's 7.

Sorry. Gotta' sleep. Blame google mail that I didn't know there were any comments on this post.

isabella mori said...

well, whatever you say, therapydoc, you always have an interesting point.

klawans is COOL! love his stuff.

BUT. i must agree with a few others here that i can't see anything wrong with trying to pick up piano playing at 45, or even 75 - just like your father is learning computers.

there's not need for ANYONE to become a michael jordan. most 6-year-olds who take up basketball/soccer/whatever never turn into a michael jordan. but anyone can get to a certain skill level and enjoy themselves.

Not Fainthearted said...

did you see the show on PBS this weekend about brain plasticity and such? I sort of watched it while doing some other things and was reminded of your post here.

interesting connections...