Neuroplasticity. It is an odd word, and an even odder word to use to begin a blog that promises in some kind of way to get around to social justice or human rights. Neuroplasticity … plastic brain? Well, yes, kind of exactly. It is a newish area in brain studies that is very quietly shouting out that are brains are not as fixed as we were once told they were. Remember high school biology class when we were taught that by then our brains were our brains and what you had was all that you were going to have? That drinking alcohol killed off brain cells, and so you should pretty much expect that drunk and stupid would inevitably go hand in hand? Well, now neuroscience is discovering that it ain’t necessarily so.
Now, I’m not saying drunk and stupid don’t go hand in hand, there is way too much evidence – scientific and anecdotal – to document that, but I am maybe saying it is the transient effect of the alcohol, not the permanent death of brain cells. But, wait, that is not really the point of this anyway. Back to neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity says that the brain is capable of healing itself, that the brain is capable of reshaping itself, literally so. If only we work at it diligently and in the right way. And isn’t is always the diligently and in the right way part that is the kick in the butt! Trying something once, failing pitifully and giving up is no longer an options. Now it seems it really is much more that you have no longer failed so much as you have begun to succeed – if only you are willing to keep trying. And yes, trying with diligence and in the right way. Because, remember the definition of insanity: repeatedly doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results. And then there was Thomas Edison who would conduct thousands of experiments on an idea he had for an invention until he got it right. And that is the model here – Edison’s experiments: he would try something, fail, analyze the failure, learn from it, and then come back at it another way, tweaking (tweaking not twerking) until he got it right.
The road to social justice and human rights, the road to fairness and respect for human dignity is a long road, a very, very long road. But if we approach it with diligence and in the right way, maybe looking at all of our actions as experiments in the spirit of Thomas Edison, acting, analyzing the outcomes of our efforts, learning and trying again in a slightly different way, maybe there reason for hope!
And here’s a bit of a story I found that kind of gets to that point:
Once upon a time in a far off farm in rural New Jersey, Jessica found an eagle’s egg. She didn’t know what kind of an egg is was, she just saw that it was an orphan egg that needed a home. So she picked it up and carried it home with her. When she brought it in the house, her mother shoed her out, and told her to put the egg in one of the nests in the hen house. Together they would watch and see if one of the hens would sit on the egg until it hatched.
Well, sure enough in a little while the egg hatched, and a baby eagle was born. The eaglet was born along with a whole brood of baby chicks and grew up with then in the barn yard. From the time he was born, through all of his life, the eagle grew up with the chicks and did everything the chicks did right along with them. They scratched in the dirt for worms and insects, he scratched in the dirt for worms and insects. They clucked and cackled, and he clucked and cackled. They would flap their wings and fly a few feet into the air, he would flap his wings and fly just a few feet into the air.
Some years passed like this, with Jessica and her mother always keeping a close eye on the young eagle and the chickens in the yard. One day an old college friend of Jessica’s mother, Anna who worked for the Audubon Society came by the farm to visit. When she saw the eagle in the barn yard in the middle of the chickens, she was aghast. Her first reaction was to ask if the animal was ill or injured, but it looked healthy to her. Jessica and her mother told Anna the story about the egg and the eagle growing up with the chickens, Anna got very quiet and thoughtful. Then she proposed a road trip to Jessica and her mother, and the three of them packed a lunch and drove to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary across the river in Pennsylvania. As they walked the trails there, the three of them talked about birds and freedom. Over the horizons they saw six or seven different kinds of hawks, a kestrel, and even an eagle or two. As they drove home, Anna looked at Jessica and her mother and said, that is what an eagle’s life should be like, not scratching for bugs in the dirt.
Jessica and her mother thought about it, and realized that Anna was right, but what could they do about it? Their eagle didn’t know how to fly, not any distance, not really. But they recognized right when they saw it, and so the two of them devised a plan to teach their eagle to fly. Each day they would take the eagle to a ledge, each day slightly higher than the day before, first a table top, then a ladder, then a low roof. Each day repeatedly they would stand the eagle on the edge of the ledge and encourage him to fly. The first day the eagle fell as much as he flew, but with practice and as his wings strengthened, the eagle developed skill and confidence. And then the day came when Jessica and her mother knew it was time. They gathered their eagle into a cage, drove to Hawk Mountain, walked to the edge of one of the cliffs, and set their eagle free. As he stood on the edge of the cliff, the eagle spread his wings, lifted his head into the wind, and few off with the wind to the life he was meant to live.
Of course Jessica and her mother were sad to see their beautiful bird leave their nest. But every now and again, they are fairly certain that they see a magnificent eagle circling over their farm, floating on the winds in majestic and regal freedom and dignity. And in those moments they feel like they too share in their eagle’s freedom.
And the point of the story? Finding your nature and living it, of course. But also that it took diligence and determination, persistent and intelligent work to make it happen.
So, may we all find our best wings! And may we all develop the resilience to learn to use them to fly!! May we all remember that even the brains of old dogs are plastic enough to always learn new tricks.