I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Dr. Nathan Mellor speak at the OBU Bison Connection luncheon last Thursday at the JASCO Event Center. It was a pleasure for a range of reasons. Steve Trice, the Chairman of JASCO is on our board and it is always a pleasure to see him, especially on his own “turf.” Dr. Mellor is a great friend of mine and a wonderful and engaging speaker. He even was kind enough to give my book some promotion during his time on the stage. Not the least, I am now connected to OBU in a very special way since my daughter will be attending there this fall and I lost count of how many people from OBU told me how excited they are to have her.
By far, the thing I enjoyed most was listening to Dr. Mellor talk about how our brains learn and change. Two things in particular caught my attention.
First, as we get older, it requires more effort, more energy, to learn new things. Second, the brain is the most engaged, and the most likely to learn, when we are hearing a story.
Let’s look at the energy required to learn first. When we are young we learn new things easily. Almost everything we come in contact with becomes part of our base of information. Once a connection is made between neurons by the axons, the body covers these connections in myelin to promote faster signal transfer and to protect them so they can be effectively used later. In other words, we learn something—connecting neurons in new ways—and then retain that new ability by insulating the connecting wires—wrapping the axons in myelin.
As we get older, the cells that produce myelin diminish. These oligodendrocytes (OLs) are affected by many factors, but studies have shown that three things significantly promote increased effectiveness in OLs:
Sleep increases the amount of oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) in the body, which in turn increase myelin formation. Sleep is associated with higher expression of genes coding for myelination. Researchers found that the production rate of the myelin-making cells (oligodendrocytes), doubled as mice slept. The increase was most marked during the type of sleep that is associated with dreaming (REM sleep.) In contrast, the genes involved in cell death and stress responses were turned on when the mice were forced to stay awake.
I know. I can hear you saying to yourself, “Thomas doesn’t sleep much.” Well, actually I am sleeping more. I may not be where I should be, but I have been trying to get more sleep. You should too.
Early experience increased white matter structure in human infants (internal capsule and frontal lobes) in parallel with improved performance in behavioral tests. That’s a fancy way for a researcher to say that being exposed to new things stimulates the brain in ways that promote myelin production and enhanced learning.
I am a huge fan of new experiences, but it is hard work. It is much easier to do the same thing, over and over. Easier, but not better. Better is trying new things. Seeing more of your community and the world. Building up your library of moments.
The number of myelin-forming oligodendrocytes increased 27 to 33% in the visual cortex of rats raised in environments that are enriched by additional play objects and social interaction. Children suffering severe childhood neglect have a 17% reduction in the corpus callosum area. The corpus callosum is the pathway that connects the left to the right side of the brain. Each side of the brain controls movement and feeling in the opposite half of the body. So children who are not socialized have a diminished capacity to communicate between the hemispheres of their brain which leads to learning difficulty, trouble with language processing and many other cognitive defects.
So, think about this in the light of how we behave as we age. We sleep less, play less and make fewer new friends. Then we wonder why it is harder and harder to learn and change.
Now let’s talk about stories. When we are experiencing a narrative, more areas of our brains are activated than when we are being given facts or data. It’s quite simple. If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.
When we are being told a story, though, things change dramatically, according to researchers. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.
If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active. A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better. When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize.
How cool is that!
We should start by being rested. Then we should seek out new experiences and social situations. In fact, hearing other people tell about their experiences counts (as far as your brain is concerned) for being a new experience for you. The parts of your brain associated with the senses used in the story are active just the same as if you were actually there. The socialization, experience and brain activity lead to increased myelin production and you learn and retain the things you learn better.
We have to be more intentional about keeping our brains healthy as we get older. It was easy to learn as a child. It is still very possible to learn and grow even as we age, it just takes more work. I think it is worth it.