jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life

Inspiration from Oliver Sacks

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I have been a fan of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s writing for many decades. One of the things I like most about his writing is its blend of scientific information and incredible optimism. His subjects had serious conditions that clearly impaired their capacity to move, think, feel, and communicate in what we might think of as “normal” ways, yet he wrote about them as subjects full of meaning, depth, and potential, people worth knowing rather than tragic victims. And he wrote about how these patients might inspire others to lead fuller and happier lives.

I am in the middle of re-reading his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain right now, but what I want to share is from an editorial he wrote for the New York Times at the end of 2010, called “Don’t Leave Learning to the Young.” It begins:

New Year’s resolutions often have to do with eating more healthfully, going to the gym more, giving up sweets, losing weight — all admirable goals aimed at improving one’s physical health. Most people, though, do not realize that they can strengthen their brains in a similar way.

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas — especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older. In fact, the brain has an astonishing ability to rebound from damage — even from something as devastating as the loss of sight or hearing. As a physician who treats patients with neurological conditions, I see this happen all the time.

He goes on to describe patients whose blindness, deafness, or paralysis have lead them to develop extraordinary abilities with other senses or memory.  He asserts that

Neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to create new pathways — is a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability. But it can also be part of everyday life for all of us. While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.

This process is a lifelong one, which he urges us to exert:

Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow. Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.

Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for those and many other wise and inspiring words. May you rest in peace.

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Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

4 thoughts on “Inspiration from Oliver Sacks

  1. I really appreciate this post. As I hit my mid-40s, I sometimes feel like there’s less room for growth. Like somehow, this is it and it’s all down hill from here. Reading these words is a wonderful reminder that there’s more to learn and experience…and a reason for doing so. A nice tribute to Dr. Sacks. Thank you for writing it.

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  2. Thank you, Michelle, for the nice comment. I agree that the messages we’re always getting is that life goes downhill from age 25 on! I feel like quite the opposite has happened in my own life–as I get older, I discover so many new things about the world and about myself. These include a decent left inside edge–almost!

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  3. Great post, Jo! I hope my brain recovers from all the disappointments I’ve had in skating! Time to build new neurological connections. 🙂

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  4. Think of the disappointments as just another way of learning! Skating gives us instant feedback on what to correct!

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