How colored chalk changed my brain

Marian Diamond is best known for studying Einstein’s brain, as well as her penchant for carrying around a hatbox with a human brain inside. But my memories of her revolve around the color-coded lectures she used to give in her anatomy class at U-C Berkeley. Before we had PowerPoint, we had Marian Diamond and her colored chalk.

We would arrive in the lecture hall and find the chalkboard covered with an outline of the day’s class, complete with drawings of anatomical structures. Several different colors of chalk were used to separate parts of the lecture or demonstrate various pathways. I never knew exactly what I would see when I walked in, only that I would be mesmerized for the entire class period by the clarity of her presentation and her dynamic teaching style. Of all the professors I had in college, she is one of only two or three whose classes I vividly remember.Diamond-Zhukova750-410x273

So when I heard that Dr. Diamond died last week, at the age of 90, I was sad for only a moment, and then I smiled, thinking back to that Berkeley lecture hall. Marian Diamond was an expert in brain development, and I realize now that she wasn’t just teaching us about the anatomy of the brain, but actually changing our brains too. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity and to test theories of how the right stimulation can promote brain development at any age.

In the introduction to her book, “Magic Trees of the Mind,” Diamond wrote that “The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life.” She believed, and showed, that nurture is every bit as important as nature in determining how our lives turn out.

Back when I was in Marian Diamond’s class, I was contemplating a career in nursing, but unprepared for the competitiveness of Cal pre-med students. My laid-back studying habits weren’t a good match for the tough courses I was taking, and I ultimately switched majors. Little did I know that many years later I would go into the field of health education. Now I rely on Diamond’s work all the time in the courses I teach on stress management.

The critical factors in nurturing healthy brain development, according to Marian Diamond, are a healthy diet, physical exercise, being challenged, having new experiences, and being loved – especially love in the form of touch. In studies of rats, she showed that those living in an enriched environment had thicker cerebral cortices, the biggest part of the brain and the one most important for attention, memory and learning. She also learned that rats who were held and petted every day lived longer than others. While much of her work focused on children’s brain development, especially the negative effects of growing up in impoverished environments, she also realized that we retain the capacity for growth throughout life. As she wrote,

“Perhaps the single most valuable piece of information learned from all our studies is that structural differences can be detected in the cerebral cortices of animals exposed at any age to different levels of stimulation in the environment.”

People know this already, even if they don’t know anything about science. A Gallup survey several years ago showed that “learning something new” was one of the biggest predictors for whether someone thinks they had a good day. We’re bored if we’re not challenged, and we languish if we’re not loved. We know we feel better if we eat healthy food, and think better when exercise gets blood flowing to the brain.

Daniel Defoe wrote that, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” What we learned from the diamond that was Marian is that the brain needs its own share of polishing and nourishment for us to lead a rich, fulfilling life.


Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.


Discovering what’s here

“È tutto qua” says the little note taped to my computer monitor. It is an Italian phrase meaning “it’s all here”. I first saw it in San Francisco, where it’s the name of an Italian restaurant. I looked up the meaning and was so taken with it that I have kept it in front of me ever since.

Besides my love for all things Italian, the note reminds me to keep life simple. Don’t confuse wants with needs, don’t overcomplicate things. It’s all here already.

Whenever I start thinking that someone else has a nicer house, or a better car, or more success, I remind myself that it’s all here.

Whenever I start fretting about how I look, or stressing over little things that go wrong, I try to remember: it’s all here.

The idea of è tutto qua for me is partially about gratitude, but it’s also about knowing how little we really need to make us happy. The Gallup polling organization surveyed over 130,000 people in 130 countries not long ago, and identified two things that are the biggest predictors of whether people enjoyed their day. The two things were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday”. That’s it.

Once our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) are met, it’s not the extra gadgets and extravagant trips that increase our happiness. It’s as simple as knowing that someone has your back, and that you’re continuing to grow. It’s all here.

The sister I can call for emotional support or advice; the neighbor I can ask to borrow an egg; the friend I can rely on in an emergency: it’s all here.

The ability to read, to listen, to see; to take up skiing when you’re over 40; or to learn (as I did yesterday) that the resveratrol in red wine can protect against hearing loss: it’s all here. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The question is, on how many days can you say, “It’s all here”?  The Gallup people also have something called the Well-Being Index, where they measure the mood of a sample of people every single day. It shows the percentage that had “a lot of happiness/enjoyment without a lot of stress/worry” and the percentage that had “a lot of stress/worry without a lot of enjoyment”. So, for instance, on February 19, 43% said they had a lot of enjoyment without stress, and 14% said they had a lot of stress without enjoyment.

Leo Rosten said, “Happiness comes only when we push our brains and hearts to the farthest reaches of which we are capable.” Maybe the two determinants of enjoyment are dependent on each other. Can we actually be free to learn and grow to our full potential if we don’t have the support of others? And can we have healthy, mutually beneficial relationships if we don’t continue to grow and change?

Are you going to enjoy today? What will you learn? Who will you support, and who supports you?

Something to teach, something to learn

Today I learned that my new yoga teacher is about to be a high school senior. I knew she was young, but not that young. She had just led us through a vinyasa flow class that was challenging, yet gentle; energetic, yet calming. Everyone thought it was great.

I am amazed by the grace and composure of this 17-year-old. When I think back to myself at that age, I can’t imagine even doing what she does, let alone doing it so well.

What makes a good teacher? Passion, confidence, knowledge? Along with those attributes, I believe that a good teacher cares deeply about her students, demonstrates it, and has the wisdom to know that there is as much to learn from them as there is to teach to them.

We benefit most as students when we let go of any expectations we have about what our teacher should be. Age, sex and size don’t define a talented yoga teacher, just as degrees and credentials don’t define talent in a college professor. Losing the words “should”, “ought”, and “must” from our vocabulary opens the door to invaluable experiences, and prevents a lot of the stress that comes from the belief that situations have to evolve in a certain way. Opening that door prepares us to engage, learn and make the most of what life, and our teachers, offer.

Certainly I used to be more rigid than I am today. From my children, I learned to be patient and adaptable. From my older relatives, I learned about dignity. From my friends, I learned to be compassionate and understanding. From my neighbors, I learned about community. From difficult people, I learned to forgive and let go.

Perhaps the most self-discovery comes when the lines between teacher and student blur, and we realize that there is something to be learned from everyone we meet. Every interaction is an opportunity to uncover something we already knew, but weren’t seeing. I only hope that I am able to touch other people the way my new yoga teacher touches me.

On our wedding day, many years ago, my husband started to say the vows he had written. “I will study…” he began, and then he paused.  I was confused – had he started to give the wrong speech? What did studying have to do with loving me or being committed to our marriage?

After a second or two, my husband went on to say something about studying our past to learn how to keep our relationship strong in the future. But as I think about it now, maybe a commitment to studying has its place in the vows along with “in sickness and in health”.

A new report from the U.K. shows how our brains can continue to develop new neurons, preserve the existing ones, and possibly improve the connection between neurons, if we challenge ourselves mentally. The researchers looked at people training to become London taxi drivers. Over a 3-4 year period, the drivers are required to learn the names and locations of about 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London. By the end of the training, brain images of successful driver trainees showed an increase in gray matter in the part of the hippocampus related to spatial navigation and memory. In other words, they grew new brain cells.

The study’s authors concluded that our brains remain “plastic” – capable of adapting – even as adults. But learning new tasks and skills is what prompts the response. Their work offers hope to people recovering from brain injuries, and refutes the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. If we needed more encouragement to be lifelong learners, this is certainly it.

Lifelong learning” has been associated with continuing professional education to stay abreast of the latest developments in your field of work. It has also fostered programs such as Elderhostel and other classes for seniors. But in the current economy, with so much job insecurity, continuous learning has become critical for people wishing to remain competitive by learning new skills that will enhance their ability to get and retain a job.

Becoming a lifelong learner is also a way to spark personal growth, and to find meaning in your life. Taking classes, or getting involved in new experiences that have nothing to do with a job, can prompt a renewed sense of curiosity about the world. For people who might be facing job insecurity, studying something unrelated is both a distraction and a way to succeed in another arena.

What are some other benefits of learning new things?  Greater knowledge and experience can help people deal with stress better because they can use it to dispute some of their irrational beliefs about stressful events. Mastering new skills also gives self-confidence a boost, which can increase resiliency. Since chronic stress can actually cause cellular aging, reducing stress and boosting the development of new brain cells might slow some of the decline we see with age.

So what does all this have to do with the marriage vows? By staying mentally sharp and healthy, the “sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” could possibly be minimized. By learning new things, being open to growth and change, someone is more likely to be open to a partner’s perspective. And let’s face it: often when people say they are bored with their husband or wife, they are really bored with themselves. So taking a class, learning a sport or finding your way around a new city makes you a more interesting person, and possibly keeps your relationship interesting too.

When my husband said he would study, he referred to us and our relationship. But I see now that studying the world, staying curious, and engaging in self-discovery is what makes each of us, and all of our relationships, stronger and healthier.