Ed. note: Today we are pleased to present a guest post from Dr. G, aka M. A. Greenstein, Ph.D. Dr. G is an internationally recognized speaker, coach, and researcher of visual culture and neurosomatics.
With the ever increasing research buzz on brain fitness, and especially “novel” mental stimulation to insure the health and longevity of developing and aging brains, questions undoubtedly arise in a number of camps concerning “what kind of novelty? How much? Fit for what?”
As someone who has invested her professional life in researching the art and science of embodied brain/mind wellness practices and in coaching, mentoring, and teaching artists, designers, and young entrepreneurs (a.k.a “cultural creatives”), I couldn’t be happier to feel the buzz. Truth be told, novelty and the willingness to try something new is my mantra, particularly in the face of challenge, be it in developing daily practices for optimal health, entering the creative zone, or rehabilitating brain injury.
Now, with the last two decades pushing neuro-, cognitive, and biotech sciences into new frontiers of experiment and insight, I am especially excited to consider the ways in which these new evolutionary system sciences open up a line of holistic inquiry regarding the correlative relation between growth in networks – biological, neural, cognitive, emotional, creative – you name it. I’m talking about the whole, complex kit and kaboodle paradigm of being human interdependent with the world.
To get a handle on this complex and often fuzzy logic, I suggest we take note of the operative word here: NETWORK. The term, after all, has become critical in dynamically pushing neuroscience forward -– from V.S. Ramachandran’s writings concerning phantom limbs (1998) to the Blue Brain project goal to design an artificial neural net model for rethinking intelligence, disease and injury.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here! Instead, let’s revisit the pioneering insights offered up by cognitive and cybernetic scientists Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, namely, that networks involve connectivity and interactivity. Be they neuro-chemical, social, or electronic, networks are by all evidence, extended, non-linear or multi-vectored in pattern and involve feedback loops. For Maturana and Varela, networking involves a process of growth, and as such, accounts for and generates new life. (Maturana called this process “autopoiesis“). Readers of Steven Johnson’s think on “emergence” networks will recall the neat alignment Johnson made in correlating the network properties of neural growth (picture dendritic branching) with the generative dynamics of ant colonies, urban sprawl and internet software. More recently, Dr. Mark Changizi has pushed Johnson’s thesis forward by showing the correlative patterning in neural and urban growth. And in his recent blog for the Dana Foundation, medical writer Tom Valeo has pointed out that network theory is the state of the art theory of innovating in brain imaging and brain assessment. In my own brain fitness coaching practice, network theory zeroes in on the novel kick-start and embedding processes involved in new learning and problem solving.
More to the point: When sharing neural network models with clients, eyes light up with excitement, and admittedly for some, anxiety builds. Questions arise: If my brain works in a non-linear way, how do I depart from routine, prescriptive, or overly determined linear methods of thinking and action?
The translated practice of network patterning, in other words, invites and encourages brain fitness learners to test a basic biological, neural and electronic principle of growth. The rewards enchant and challenge people to take steps, however gawky, to enter untried spaces of experience.
Approaching the novelty aspect of brain fitness in this way, I find the search for novelty defying a normative fitness scale. Instead, novelty – and all that word intends — allows us to court or chase varied and often non-conventional modes of thinking, picturing and networking! Brains, we are told, become anatomically unique (evolution notwithstanding). So too is the unique way in which we learn to encode new behaviors, new skills, new ways of engaging with ourselves, our community, our world.
My take home message: Before you jump into a novel brain/mind stimulation practice, consider the simple facts and ideas to which a global community of creative agents (and as I am learning, recovering brain injured) can agree:
- Fresh and unusual ideas grow wild like weeds; look for any crack in the sidewalk of your brain-mind; that is where you’re likely to find growth.
- Cherish the BIG freedom to be curious, to look up, down, all around.
- Novel ideas emerge when we are immersed, fully attentive, “in love” or in the “flow” with what we’re doing; inspiration matters.
- Learn to navigate feelings of uncertainty with confidence and with assistance from wise others – colleague, coach or friend. Mine those feelings for new maps, new landscapes to explore, new experiences to adapt, embed and grow your brain!
- Be willing to think “different.” Risk breaking cultural, grammatical or logical rules (like Apple, Inc. does), to “diverge” and take alternate routes to solve a problem. Dare to stand with artists, scientists, designers and entrepreneurs — those remarkable creative agents who challenge the status quo because they feel compelled to “want to know.”
As I intimated above, I am currently gathering insights from recovered brain injured professionals who reveal the powerful role personal acts of creativity play healing from brain trauma. I hope to share some of those thoughts in a future blog.