Could this possibly be the year in which the lovely phrase “shock of the new” comes to have a special and even more positive meaning? Let me put this hope into context. Over the last decade, knowledge of the brain has changed dramatically. The pioneering science of neuroplasticity is showing for the first time how the brain can regenerate in ways once thought impossible. Most of us knew what a magnificent and complex organ the brain is.
What we didn’t know was how “plastic” it also is, capable of significantly reorganising itself when “it” or its environment needs that. Norman Doidge has written a fine account of this (The Brain that Changes Itself) and calls those fresh insights “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century”. Doidge may be wrong. It may turn out to be one of the most extraordinary discoveries of any century. But, meanwhile, our knowledge of the mind is still lagging.
Mind and brain are inextricably linked. Healthy minds depend on more than the brain but certainly can’t function well when the brain is not in good shape. What’s fascinating is that the reverse is true. Our brain also depends on our mind being used in active and dynamic ways – ideally taking us repeatedly “outside the box” of timid or habitual responses and thinking. When we don’t stretch the mind, the brain suffers. The person suffers. Society suffers. Capacities within the brain that are damaged or even destroyed can be regenerated. We know that. But capacities within the brain that are creaky from disuse will simply degenerate. We also know that.
Investing in our minds on a lifelong basis is the greatest service we can do for our brains and quality of life. This more than justifies giving up whatever clouds or obliterates our thinking, including recreational drugs and excessive drinking. It also means getting some detachment and insight about how we think as well as what we think about. Boredom is bad for the brain. Bored, we drift dangerously close to depression. But agitation is also harmful and no substitute for real excitement. The human mind is hungry for genuinely stimulating experiences and for real rest when it’s tired. Junk food for the mind, constant noise and eruptions, or narcotics however tasty, simply won’t keep it or you happy for long.
When it comes to using and developing the mind’s capacities, a supportive social environment is critical. A child’s appetite for awe and learning is one of the most precious gifts of childhood. How that capacity is nourished will make a profound difference in each individual child’s life. This doesn’t depend on money or privilege. Nor is it about “cleverness” or the capacity to reproduce other people’s ideas skilfully. The ideal environment – whatever our age or circumstances – emphasises freshness, curiosity, creativity, co-operation, sensual as well as intellectual engagement, and a willing and constant testing of ideas, impressions and explanations as new information comes to hand. When those things are not available, the mind slackens and life feels sour.
The start of a new year is a brilliant time to freshen up your thoughts about thinking. Setting aside habitual preconceptions to experience the “”shock of the new”” is itself surprisingly difficult. But it is also a real chance to check where your thinking patterns have become dulled or dull and to do something smart about it. Even the most intelligent people keep on doing some things in the same old ways that have never worked. Acting intuitively or counter-intuitively instead, looking at situations from someone else’s vantage point, shaking up your expectations and prejudices, examining what you have “always thought” for its use-by date and becoming that fascinating “thoughtful person” you have long admired may or may not be the cure needed – but it will certainly get your thoughts whirling and your spirits rising. Your mind and brain will benefit. So will your life.