• Posted: Mar 22, 2017 14:27:34
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Transitions are not easy. I know, I’m going through one myself these days. And so is my son who recently moved from the East coast to the West coast, and so is a friend who last year lost her husband to cancer and youthful medical arrogance, and so is another friend trying to adjust to treatment for severe depression, and so is yet another friend who scant weeks ago lost two of his three pet goats to viciously attacking stray dogs. And so too, needless to say, is the entire US struggling to adjust to recently elected and/or appointed arrogant ignorant incompetence in public offices. No, transitions are not easy. But, in fact, they can be good for us.
US public television stations are currently broadcasting a profile piece on brain researcher Marian C. Diamond. Outside of academic circles, that is not a well known name. But, back in the early 1960s, when I was just entering high school, when the women’s lib movement was beginning to take hold, she completed a long-term detailed analysis of minute cross-sections of rat brain tissue that proved conclusively the physiology of brains is not fixed by genetics at birth, but changes throughout life, dependent upon experience. In other words, the brain is malleable, plastic, ever changing in ability and organization in response to demands placed upon it by interaction with the outside world. At the time, that was not an easily accepted notion, especially coming from a woman. But, her conclusions have since been born out in countless subsequent studies, including in human brains, and are now commonly accepted.
Experience changes our brains in dramatic ways. Dealing with a complex, enriched, and demanding social and physical environment prompts our brains to increase its complexity and streamline its organization. Not literally overnight, but gradually over a relatively short period of time, given exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep. Withdraw from complexity and challenge and novel interaction and the brain decreases its complexity, simplifies its organization, and loses its astuteness, resourcefulness, and flexibility. Just like, if you don’t exercise, your body will become weak, stiff, and ineffective at doing things. But, practice and study, practice and study, practice and study, and you will get stronger and more competently facile at doing things.
I have also been thinking lately about the social and political divisions in this country. Wandering like I do, I recently found myself deep in the heart of Conservative rural America where I asked myself, “What makes these people think that they have the right idea about how this country should operate?” Have they really closed themselves off to the grim realities of contemporary life on this planet, assuming no responsibility whatsoever? Have they actually allowed their brains to atrophy and calcify to such an extent they cannot even fathom the grave concerns most of the rest of us despair over?
Well, what I found might surprise you. Rural life is not simple. And, it is not without challenge. People are not all isolated and walled up in their own little worlds, armed and frightened of the rest of us. To the contrary, given opportunity and not forced from their comfort zone, people are friendly, interested in each other, hospitable, generous, and civically engaged. Plus, they can be witty and talented in ways city and suburban people just aren’t. What surely is different is the pace of things. Rural life does not bear down on you non-stop from all directions like urban life does. You have a chance to catch you breath, take a load off and discuss things, think things through before making your next move.
So, in terms of brain development, what happens to an overly stressed brain? Studies have shone it shuts down, becomes irritable, withdraws. It fears continuing. It more easily explodes into violence. It desires to somehow in some rational or not rational way to regain control, to limit input to something more manageable, more engaging, satisfying, and fulfilling. Input that does not fit into that desire for more manageable control becomes “BS”, “fake”, “the enemy”. And, on a society level, too many people butting heads with each other means cooperation and cohesion dissipate. Sense of community and mutual caring for each other end. Animosity and hate become the norm. And, institutions that allow for the smooth functioning of society break down.
So yes, do take a chance on healthful transition now and then. It is good for the brain and good for the soul and good for our society in the renewal of enthusiasms, energy, creativity, and workable ideas it brings.
And, if you get a chance to visit Paris TX on a Tuesday evening this Spring or Summer, try ever so reverently dropping in on the High Strung Bluegrass Cafe at the very south end of town, across the tracks from that big old grain elevator and seed company, to hear or participate in an open musical jam. It will help tune you into what life for all of us could be like if we take the time to lower our stress level and begin again to engage with and appreciate one another and the bountiful realities of a healthful well paced life on this oh so beautiful planet we share.
Tuesday, March 14th, 2017