Play-Doh and the Brain
What does Play-Doh have in common with the human brain?
A strange question for those in the field of neuroscience but for the Play-Doh artists of yesteryear as well as today, the query makes a kind of intuitive sense. Play-Doh, after all, was and remains one of the first (non-toxic) malleable stuff we get to smooosh, jab, twist, learning the very important sensory lesson of plasticity. (For you Freudians, even our own “doo” doesn’t have that kind of moldability!)
Now granted the kind of plasticity said to be native to the brain is not geared toward hands-on sculpting, although there are days when some of us feel like our brains have been through the Play-Doh press. But for those of us who remember the power we felt manipulating the soft, rubbery and colorful stuff, the untold possibilities of neuroplasticity hold immense promise.
As a young grad student in dance and movement therapy studying sensori-motor and imagination capabilities of the brain, the first inklings of neuroplasticity came forward in the discussion of mental practice. I remember flying to Chicago with a colleague to interview Dr. Edmund Jacobson, whose research on mental practice and relaxation response had greatly influenced my mentor Dr. Alma Hawkins. Hawkins was a visionary in her own day, bridging the history of mystical practice (meditation), creativity and neuroscience in hopes of coming up with an empirically ground pedagogy for young dance and movement therapy students.
Today, meditation and mental practice are both at the heart of neuroscience research and as we are learning, its effects on neuroplasticity is helping to turn over nearly two centuries of scientific studies built on the mechanistic premise that nerve cells are non-adaptive and that the functional organization of the brain is fixed and unchanging.
Call it Play-Doh for the brain, but I say the story of neuroplasticity is the best news to break in the arts, education, sports, health and fitness. For you somanauts, the orbit and directive have both been made clear: “The brain makes culture and culture makes the brain” (Warren Neidich). So “train your mind; change your brain” (Sharon Begley).
By the way, for those interested in testing their neuroplastic potential this summer, check out the Aging Body (or not) workshops that will be held in August in the Rocky Mountains! See http://www.spacesuityoga.com and click on Summer Workshops.
The future is ours to mold!
*For those working with students grades K-12, be sure to read the recent NY Times article (June 16, 2007), on the skillful use of mindfulness practice in elementary schools and hospitals, to the benefit of participating students.