What’s New?

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“What’s new?”  People often ask me, as if something really is. When I hear others asked what’s new, I’ve often heard back the conversation closer, “Not much.”

Researchers begin new projects with questions about what’s new that leave people like me wondering if something will change eventually, and if so who will benefit. Have you seen it?

At times change becomes the arrows that shoot for a target endless times, and hits the target on a few occasions. At other times change is the shifting winds blowing here one minute, and there the next. When Gandhi said to “be the change you wish to see in the world, he was advocating for resilience that keeps arrows winging toward your target, in spite of unpredictable winds. He was inviting us to move beyond what’s broken and to become part of change that works!

Sometimes it feels as if you need a handle like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa, to create the sort of change that sticks!

As a mere mortal, if you’ve ever feared the risk it takes to toss that first arrow and try to change a thing, you’ll likely understand my battles for change and fear of failure that comes with it. Take high school lectures. We now know that lessons delivered as if facts are pizza pieces, lack the learning results that active learning bring.  Nevertheless lectures still proliferate, as if telling a person facts equals that person’s ability to understand or use those facts. Change stalls, while even top secondary and higher education classes still align lessons lectured with test scores published and consider that connection “quality” education.

Because I work in brain research, I’ve been especially encouraged over the past decade to see how our brains change daily, based on our choices and actions. In his 2007 book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge describes a senior Bac-y-Rita, who risked change to restore his health after a massive stroke. He ended up restored in ways other stroke patients crave but rarely chase down.

His son, Paul Bach-y-Rita, is now famous for his work in neuroplasticity, because he risked acting on change when told that his father’s crippling stoke in New York was incurable. All around him, experts claimed there was no hope for a cure from stokes, and still Bac-y-Rita refused to give up. Language and mobility were gone forever, experts insisted, but Paul vowed to help his father heal, and in so doing discovered the brain’s plasticity which is its ability to change itself.

With little progress after a month’s therapy, medical experts assured the family they could do no more, and suggested Bach-y-Rita enter an institution. They claimed that brains cannot repair themselves.  Meanwhile, as medical specialists argued, nothing else appeared to help Paul’s 65 year old father to walk or talk again.

All seemed lost to any who looked on at the family’s tragedy. After all, who’d ever heard of a brain that repairs itself after a serious stroke? The once respected scholar, Bach-y-Rita, spiraled down from well-respected professor at City College in NY to complete dependency on others for his basic needs.

His sons brought their Papa back to Mexico and began to teach him to crawl again, in hopes that by starting where babies start to walk, they could reteach their dad. Using the wall to support his limp shoulder, Bach-y-Rita, inched along clumsily for months, as he and his sons created marble games to play on the floor that required a reach and movement.

Cynics in medical schools warned that this was wasted time, experts insisted they knew best why brain power remains fixed, and neighbors criticized the Bach-y-Rita family when their papa crawled outside, saying, “The boys are treating this old man like a dog.” Yet persistence prevailed, because the sons suspected that brains are capable of more than we once realized.

With every ounce of progress, the grown sons of Bah-y-Rita persisted more to help their papa do acts on the opposite side of his weakness and loss.

It should be noted that little was known until recently about how the brain changes itself whenever we act opposite a weakness, and awaken the brain’s plasticity.  Yet it makes sense that this mind-bending discovery came to a person who sought solutions, and refused to give up.

Progress comes slowly to me at times I admit, but any awareness that my brain can remap skills lost in a stroke, encourages me that other parts of my brain will also remap other basic skills lost. Paul observed his father’s brain reorganization for instance, and he saw how new areas of the brain took over where damaged parts had destroyed his father’s ability to walk and talk.

I’ll admit to a lack of persistence when I’ve faced resistance to change. I’ve held onto more hope lately, that change has a chance because it’s rooted in mental equipment designed for reshaping brains. Paul Bac-y-Rita’s life seemed shaped by a narrative that saw more with his brain and not dependent on his eyes alone.  And in that position, he could support his papa’s brain reorganization for renewal and change.

Life improved simply by action and persistence, as Bach-y-Rita showed,  on the other side of loss. It’s the in between spaces, where little progress is detected that I’ve been guilty of giving up on any growth.

In Bac-y-Rita’s case, it took many months of crawling and sputtering syllables, before new life slowly emerged and progress was seen. Inside his brain, new neuron pathways for language and mobility remapped in different areas, and eventually replaced damaged brain cells. The results? After a miraculous recovery, Bach-y-Rita returned to teach at City College in New York, at 68, three years following his stroke.

Paul Bach-y-Rita went on to explain a great deal of the research in areas of plasticity, that equips brains to rewire and remap in other areas. He found life-changing solutions where cynics and naysayers saw only doom and disaster.

Paul Bach-y-Rita would be first to remind us of the wonder of your brain’s plasticity, or ability to change itself.  He’d show how our brains reorganize to become the life-changing solutions we seek. Would you agree that changes our answer to the question “What’s new?” when that question relates to your brain?