Resolve to pursue new minds

Posted Jan. 11, 2010, at 5:40 p.m.

I see from my Facebook page that everyone is off to the usual new year’s resolutions: exercise and weight loss.

But what about our brains?

Some of the most interesting research and policy recommendations to emerge from the decade just past have to do not with the benefits of physical exercise, but rather with the social, political, economic and, yes, personal benefits of understanding and exercising our brains.

I therefore propose we consider the value of pursuing whole new minds for this new decade.

Both brain research and firsthand documentation of the experience of stroke victims, such as brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s, have increasingly brought us the news that our emotions, behaviors, learning capacities — and resulting social and economic successes — are as much about choices we make, and educational opportu-nities we are offered, as about innate genetic or biological factors.

In short, the ways we learn to understand the world and to express ourselves are the result not of uncontrollable tissue but of the conscious development and nurturing of specific neural pathways: pathways which throughout our lives can be reshaped and redeveloped, even in old age, even after devastating brain injuries or stroke.

Having trouble holding a job because you can’t control your anger? You can learn to consciously redirect the habitual flow of neurons when you react to something, and change your seemingly uncontrollable responses. Are fears and anxiety keeping you from the family life or career you want to have? The focus of most medita-tive practices is to shift the locus of understanding from our task-oriented left brain to our right, which experiences connectedness and wholeness and can reduce the power of our daily anxieties.

Alert educators and parents have known for some time that intelligence and achievement are not all about biological IQ, but rather about the stimuli the brain is offered — say, the number of words to which an infant is regularly exposed; the aspirations and expectations that are set for and by us; and the encouragement we re-ceive for different types of behaviors. But how much of this new brain knowledge, moving us away from the old worlds of IQ tests, has made its way into our public policy, public schools curricula, and, more importantly, our daily lives?

On behalf of our children, researchers increasingly recognize that our public education systems are too “left brain” focused. Our classrooms are good (sometimes) at teaching facts and basic math and literacy — all functions governed in the left hemispheres of our brains — and much less good at teaching problem solving and the type of creative and innovative thinking being demanded by the U.S. position in the global economy. Teaching creativity and innovation requires development of the right hemispheres of our brains, sectors most effectively developed through learning in and through artistic practices. Best-selling writers Daniel Pink (author of the recent “Drive” and “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future”) and Thomas Friedman (“Hot, Flat, and Crowded”) have been consistently and loudly eloquent on this subject and its importance to U.S. competitiveness in global markets; but are we working to change our local schools, and parenting, accord-ingly?

And with the new understanding that the brain is in fact a lifelong learner are we adults keeping our brains and communities as healthy as we might be? Research shows our more mature brains hunger for learning that is not merely about taking in more stuff, but rather that which challenges our perceptions of the world, a kind of stretching of the brain beyond its comfort zone that breaks it away from established connections, thereby encouraging the growth of new pathways. “If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections,” Dr. Taylor concludes.

Taking new routes to work; learning new languages; having conversations with those different from us as well as those who share our world views; experiencing the arts and ensuring our children do as well; meditating: These are new year’s resolutions which will, in the long term and as importantly as physical fitness, benefit our national health as well as our personal well-being. Whole new minds for the new decade.

Linda L. Nelson is executive director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House.

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