by Win Wenger
Photo courtesy of
Steven C. Hall
Other things equal: the older you are, the more readily
you should be able to learn.
This is because human learning is by association. We make sense of
current stimuli by relating them to previous experience. The older you
are, the more experiences and the more aspects of more experiences you
have ready to tie in with incoming new experiences, to recognize them in
terms of previous concepts and experiences and to make sense of them.
You are not about to run out of memory capacity, either, in this
lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. You have more different possible
connections available in your brain than there are atoms in the
Alas, other things are not equal.
One of the regards in which they are not equal, is in the millions upon
millions of brain cells you’ve allowed to languish unstimulated and
unexercised, eventually to die, compared with the number of cells you’ve
developed and the number of cells you’ve replaced.
Yet you know that only a tiny percentage of your physical brain is
developed. So much is this the case that even when you are an
octogenarian you could, with a little effort and direction, have several
times more of your brain developed, online and firing, than when you
were a youth!
This aspect, so counter to popular expectations of inevitable dwindling
into senility, deserves at least two sidenotes:
Some people still are caught up in the old belief that brain
function and intelligence are unchangeable quantities, fixed at or near
birth, that one is pretty well stuck for life with the level of
intelligence he was born with - or with the lack thereof. Clinicians
have no trouble with recognizing trauma and processes which reduce
intelligence, but cling to the antique conviction that nothing can
increase it. Yet the subject of brain plasticity has become a frequent
object of published scientific research. The phenomenon of brain
plasticity: the tendency of the brain (which is, indeed our primary
organ for adapting!) to change its circuitry, its structure, its shape,
its size, even its mass, to better handle the levels and types of
information it has been coping with over the previous year or so. Google
for “brain plasticity,” sample the many studies which come up, and draw
your own conclusions about the supposedly fixed nature of one’s
- There is science behind the folklore you‘ve heard so often - to
the effect that only 5-10% of the physical brain is developed. It
always helps to go back to original sources and this instance is
certainly a good example of this principle. Going back to original
sources is what so many leaders of workshops in creativity and/or
self-development failed to do, passing along instead what became
mere folklore in this context. Folklore which is now being shrugged
aside AS mere folklore, so that people don’t have to think about the
enormous implications. A look at this 5-10% figure, and how that was
arrived at, is pretty instructive. J.Z. Young (A Model of the Brain.
Oxford Univ. Press, 1964) was the one who sampled brain cells in
various parts of the brain, and who literally counted what
proportion of the cells in his samples were developed compared with
how many were not developed...
...It IS true that only 5-10% of the cells in the human brain are
developed at all. That part of his findings was correct. It is NOT
true, however, that 5-10% or even 1% of the brain is developed.
...A neuron is considered developed if it has developed an
insulating myelin sheath and has synaptically linked in to other
neurons. That was what Young was counting. The method made no
allowance for the DEGREE of development. Neurons have been counted
with upward of 60,000 synaptic connections with other neurons - but
most of the developed neurons in your brain or mine have only a
dozen or so such connections. Factor together the percentage of
cells developed with their degree of development, and the brain
clearly is not 5% or so developed - but more like one
ten-thousandths of one percent developed! In other words, there is
some bit of room for improvement.
- Besides stimulus and feedback, a primary factor driving the
percentage and degree of development in the brain is the amount of
circulation reaching it. A substantial portion of the people who
have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, when examined turn out instead
to have been launched into an Alzheimer’s-like spiral dwindling of
their faculties through a failure of circulation in key areas of
their brain, or even more frequently an onset of anemia, conditions
for which some other treatments could be more appropriate than some
of the treatments which they are receiving as misdiagnosed
Alzheimer's victims. Very occasionally, reports have surfaced of
restoration of limb function after paralyzing spinal chord injury,
after extra arterial circulation has been routed through the site of
injury for some while. In any event it stands to reason that if one
improves the physical circulation of oxygen, energy, food energy and
nutrition TO the brain and removal of fatigue products and toxic
wastes FROM the brain, the physical condition and functioning of the
brain will improve.
...HOW does one improve circulation to the brain? Come now: even if
you’ve not looked into this topic previously, you can probably
brainstorm a half dozen or more ways, half of which would
successfully work. However, unless you’ve read our work on this
point, the most powerful of all known ways probably would not have
made it into your brainstormed list of methods for improving
circulation to the brain. That most powerful way is held-breath
underwater swimmingplease see
Ways to Profoundly Improve Your Intelligence; "Did You Know? A Few
Specific Points" (Winsights No. 77); and
Personality Traits: A Hypothesis (Winsights No. 61)that combines the CO2-Carotid Effect (the more carbon di-oxide,
within reason, that you have conserved in your bloodstream, the
wider the Carotid arteries open to allow more circulation through to
the brain) with the Mammalian Diving Response (we mammals have a
reflex which powerfully sends more blood circulating to the brain
and internal organs when we are under water). Also improved by this
held-breath underwater swimming is one’s span of attention, allowing
one to better see relationships and make sense of things.
The last few years in brain research have seen the discovery that the
brain, all the time, is replacing some of its old cells with new
neurons, and that the quality, speed and focus of this process is
susceptible to many different kinds of influences as to stimulus and
feedback, circulation, nutrition, select chemicals, and the “cognitive
program” running in your necktop computer.
Educators in recent years have come to emphasize the value of feeding
experience into a young child’s growing brain. They have described the
condition of having a small amount of experience providing little
“surface area” to which incoming new experiences can be linked and
associated and made sense of - hence the desirability of enriching
experience in a young child’s growing brain so that he instead has many
ways to attach to and associate his ongoing new inputs. The case for
this model is persuasive except for one thing:
I believe the “sticky surface area” model of associative learning
is correct, and that means that our learning SHOULD become much easier and
faster as we grow older. What more than offsets this positive tendency,
however, is what we allow to happen to our brains as we grow older. We
compound this physiological deterioration by neglecting entire sectors of
brain function and types of thinking and learning and perceiving which we
had as children and which were an important part of our intellectual
performance and growth. These neglected sectors DE-myelinate and eventually
die out of our brains.
The observed phenomenon of the slowing of one’s learning with age.
I wonder what wonderful ranges of perception, understanding and experience
could await us if we did not allow these losses or even reversed them, and
the expanded “sticky surface area” of our mature lifetime-accumulated
experience continued to make sense of our ongoing world unabated.....
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