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.

 

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Bending the arc of history

“Love wins, love wins,” went the chant in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning after the historic decision in support of gay marriage. I felt tremendously lucky to be there at that moment, with my sister, friends, and hundreds of other people whose lives and loves depended on the outcome. Even now, several hours later, I find it difficult not to tear up when I think about that emotional moment when the decision was announced.Supreme Court_28

Honore de Balzac wrote that, “The more one judges, the less one loves,” but today we took a huge stride toward acceptance of all people, toward judging a little less, and loving a lot more. This is truly a decision that will create acceptance and support for so many people in our communities, and will hurt no one. We all benefit by the extension of marriage to everyone.

Gratitude goes to the plaintiffs in the case whose personal stories spoke for so many others. They exemplified Maya Angelou’s words:

In the flush of love’s light, we dare to be brave. And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.

Who would I be without my sisters?

At the end of each semester, I receive a packet of narrative comments that my students have submitted as part of the course evaluation. Leery as I sometimes am about reading them, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the course. One of the things that my students most appreciate is the opportunity to heal through writing, and easily the most valuable assignment to them is the letter of gratitude that I ask them to write. The gratitude letter doesn’t just say “thank you,” it is a full acknowledgement of what someone has done for you and an appreciation of what that gift means.

But while assigning the gratitude letter to my students year after year, I have only rarely written one myself. Reading their comments recently made me realize that I have a group of people to whom I owe tremendous gratitude:

To my sisters:

Thank you for being my first friends, for teaching me about loyalty, the importance of relationships, and how to care for others. With you, I never felt alone – someone was always a step ahead and a step behind, protecting me. Being with you was like being in a private club with its own secrets and rituals. I think that’s why I hated camp, dropped out of Girl Scouts and never wanted to live in a dorm. My sisters were, for the longest time, the only group I needed to be part of. Remember how, no matter how old we were, Dad always referred to us collectively as “you girls”?

Thank you for teaching me how to share, no matter how reluctantly. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be myself. I know I can still be my most authentic when I am with you. Yes, we judge, doubt and second-guess each other sometimes, but we also accept each other, no matter how many flaws. We have learned through each other’s mistakes, and we have made mistakes together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrenda Shaughnessy has a poem called “Why I Wish I Had More Sisters”, where she writes, “I wish I had more sisters, enough to fight with and still have plenty more to confess to.” Over the years, we have fought and we have confessed; in fact we have experienced a full range of human emotion. When I was cruel to one of you, I learned shame. When one of you was cruel to me, I learned forgiveness. We have carried anger, jealousy and resentment with us at times, but also love, kindness and compassion.

I am never at a loss for conversation when I am with you. We can laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve, in equal measure. Shaughnessy writes, “None of us would be forced to be stronger than we could be.” We have proven this to be true over and over again, as we have gone through difficult times together. When one of is hurting, there is someone to hold her up. We don’t always understand each other, but we never give up on each other.

Finally, thank you for making my husband part of the family, for loving him and our children almost as much as your own. We are stronger as a family because of the support and safe space you have provided. There is a synergy to love that is shared.

You continue to inspire me, to be my collective North Star. You are smart, dedicated, curious, funny and accomplished women. You keep me honest, you force me to grow, and I love you for it. I don’t wish I had more sisters – I realize I have just enough.

 

She rises still

I rose today and found out that Maya Angelou had died, but in her beautiful words I found inspiration and an intention for my days:

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.

Maya Angelou wrote frequently about courage. She realized that it takes courage to love and be loved, it takes courage to express empathy, it takes courage to avoid making the same mistakes twice, and it takes courage to see ourselves for who we are. Like Aristotle, she thought that courage was “the most important of all virtues. Because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtues consistently.”

600full-maya-angelouWithout courage, it is difficult to have faith in the unseen and unknown; without courage, hope becomes a struggle; and without courage, it is nearly impossible to fight for justice. For most of us, courage is a word that we use to describe other people, not ourselves. We think that someone who is courageous faces danger all the time without any fear. But Maya Angelou seemed to know that being courageous is about embracing fear with resolution, and acting in spite of it. A courageous person has the self-possession that allows her to live life fully. Courage can be quiet too.

To be courageous is to accept risk and uncertainty. In the absence of such courage, we often resist, as Sally Kempton says, “not only life’s difficulties but also life’s potential sweetness.” We deny ourselves the pleasure of opening to love or to personal growth because it might upset the delicate balance of life as we know it.  But Maya Angelou was not afraid to disturb or to change. She experienced abuse, poverty and segregation, and still embodied hope, faith and courage. She was a dancer, poet, author, actor, mother, and activist. She was not caged by any label, any role or any experience.

How do we become courageous? Eleanor Roosevelt said that, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.” We become brave by practicing courage one day at a time; by saying “Yes, I can”; by letting go of fear, and moving toward love.

Lucky in love

What is the essence of a strong, fulfilling relationship? Experts agree that it should make you feel happy and loved, safe and secure, respected, and respectful. It’s one where you can be yourself, or as Erich Fromm said, you unite “with another while still remaining an individual.”holding_hands1

My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and it makes me reflect on why our marriage has lasted as long as it has. How much was luck, and how much hard work?

Since 2004, the Cornell Legacy Project has been collecting “practical advice” from a large group of people over 70. They’re asked for their counsel on different aspects of life, such as raising children, living through wars, and dealing with loss.  When they were asked about what makes a successful marriage, the top responses were:

  1. Marry someone who is like you in their core values, and don’t think you can change them after marriage.
  2. Friendship is as important as romantic love in lifelong relationships.
  3. Don’t keep score. Marriage isn’t always a 50-50 proposition. The key to success is that both partners try to give more than they take.
  4. Talk to each other.
  5. Don’t just commit to your partner; commit to marriage itself and take it seriously.

The first two tips are about choosing your partner. Marrying someone who shares your values and can be your best friend allows you to take the leap of faith that true intimacy requires. The word intimacy comes from the Latin word meaning “within”, and that willingness to let someone else inside our hearts requires trust. That’s the first building block.

Intimacy is important, but it’s not enough. That’s why I think #5 – commitment — comes next. There has to be a sense of mutual obligation – we’re in this together and we both have to make it work. Both people have to set the intention that they are going to make the relationship a priority.

But once the choice is made and the intention is set, sustaining any relationship over the long term requires attention and effort. It has to be cultivated like a garden so that it thrives. I agree with the advice that marriage isn’t always 50-50. At any given time, someone is going to be giving more than the other, and there are times when you have to make an effort even when you don’t have the energy for it. You just hope that it balances out in the end, that you feel as if the relationship has enriched your life well beyond what you’ve put into it.wildflowers 3

Communication is the other vital element. The elders say “talk to each other”, but I would suggest learning to listen more than you talk. Listen to understand instead of listening just to reply. Listen with empathy. Don’t react quickly, but respond thoughtfully. Apply mindfulness practices to your relationship.

Ultimately, the support that comes from strong relationships is a powerful component of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Having someone to confide in, to touch, and to provide companionship leads to a better, longer life. It has certainly made my life richer and more meaningful. So has my marriage required hard work? Definitely. But at the same time, I feel really lucky.

Letting go of fear

Does Cory Booker practice yoga? I wonder because the Newark, NJ mayor was speaking the language of yoga in an interview with the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne a few days ago. Discussing violence and crime prevention, he said, “Fear is a toxic state of being. You’ve got to lead with love.”

At its essence, the word yoga means to yoke, join or unite. It strikes me that Booker is speaking that language when he says that love can unite people when it replaces the fear that’s at the heart of so much of our distrust of each other. Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig says that in order to meet challenges, we need to “let go of fear and move back into a place of love.” I think they are saying the same thing.

Stress often comes from being unfamiliar with a person, place or experience. That fear of the unknown often manifests itself by us labeling someone or something as “other”, as different from ourselves. By focusing on differences we harden ourselves to feeling any compassion for the other, and we rationalize conflict and dislike. We use otherness as an excuse for our feelings about people of different nationalities, religions, races, political parties, social groups, or abilities. It makes it easier to ignore the paths that might lead to understanding.

Cory Booker’s interview covered a lot of topics, but he was talking in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. While there’s a lot we’ll never know about that tragic evening, we can be pretty sure that it started when one person saw another and labeled him as “other”.  It started with fear and distrust.

I’ve written here before about the “Just Like Me” meditation developed by Chade-Meng Tan. Combined with a loving kindness meditation, it becomes a powerful process for tearing down those feelings of otherness. The heart of it is acknowledging that the other person has the same needs and desires for health, happiness and love that you have.

As Meng says, “There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves (“just like me”), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly…”

circleIt takes practice to get to the point where we react with love and kindness first. But isn’t it worth the effort? The “Just Like Me” meditation is a tool for finding our common ground, our humanity. President Obama said last week that, “we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” That circle starts with compassion for self, then widens out to families, friends, to neighbors, communities, and eventually encompasses the stranger, the “other”, even perhaps an enemy, by admitting the truth that they are “just like me.”

Share the love

“Shower the People” is a James Taylor song that one of my yoga teachers often plays in class. Every time I hear it, I’m moved by its simple message – shower the people you love with love. The song’s refrain is perfect for Valentine’s Day.

“Just shower the people you love with love”

This imagery is so beautiful. Imagine love falling all over you like a warm rain shower, soaking it up, taking in as much as you need.

“Show them the way that you feel”

Sometimes we hide our feelings because we are afraid to put them into words; or forget to express our feelings when we get comfortable in relationships. Don’t be afraid to show how much someone means to you.

“Things are gonna work out fine if you only will”

What is there to lose? Probably not as much as there is to gain. Someone might be wishing to hear from you, so reach out.

“Shower the people you love with love”

JT includes father and mother, sister and brother, here. Love is a big umbrella that covers all those family and friends you care about. Let them hear it from you.

“Show them the way that you feel”

Some people need to hear the words, “I love you”; others crave the gestures – hugs, kisses, attention. What does your loved one need in order to feel cared for?

“Things are gonna be much better if you only will”

The beautiful thing about love is that it never runs out. The more you give to other people, the more you will get in return.

Happy Valentine’s Day!