Old Brains: New Neurons

Taoist Arts Center New York:
Medicine and Research

On these pages you will find articles and research on the healing effects of tai chi, chi kung (qigong), Taoist Meditation, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Doctors and medical researchers continue to investigate the effects of these arts on conditions including diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, pain, and stress management. This page presents a selection of health articles along with others on Chinese philosophy and culture.

Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Meditation

Chinese Philosophy

Medicine & Research

Old Brains: New Neurons
Modern research has overthrown conventional wisdom about the workings of the brain. We now know that we keep our brain cells throughout our lives and that if we keep our minds active, we can access what we have, grow additional neurons and retain the plasticity of our cerebral pathways as long as we live.   ''The secret is focused learning'' says Barbara Strauch of the NY Times.

Jack Mezirow, professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, echos her report, adding that adults learn best when presented with what he calls a  ''disorienting dilemma'' or something that  ''helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you have acquired.' Such new discovery, he says ''is the essential thing in adult learning.''' As we age our brains tend to forget more easily, yet mature minds have advantages, says Kathlene Taylor, a professor at St. Mary's College of California who reports that mental activity increases during learning and that people over forty tend to be more resourceful, better at seeing the central point of an issue and at making connections to multiple things.

She encourages adults to learn something new in order to awaken their neurons and jiggle their synapses. The more it forces them to leave their comfort zone and challenge their most dearly held assumptions, the better. In a related issue, Daniel Coyle and Geoff Colvin (in their books The Talent Code, and Talent is Overrated) delve into the nature of brilliance to tell us that genius is made not born. Mozart, we learn, began as a smart, but not exceptional musician, whose talent was honed by years of focused practice and relentless dedication to his art.

Mozart studied music, but the lesson for us today is that the subject itself, is not as important as the manner of its practice. And slow, painstaking, training which is meant to reduce automatic action and internalize better performance has been shown to produce the best results.

As an example of this kind of learning, Coyle describes a tennis center in Russia where they play without a ball in order to focus on precision of technique. (This might seem  weird to you, but if you try to slow down your golf swing, or your push-up till it takes 90 seconds to finish you will most likely find errors you never noticed.

The primary trait possessed by exceptional people is not mysterious. it is the ability to develop a deliberate, difficult, error-based practice routine - and stick to it.

 ''The Chinese internal healing and martial arts of tai chi, chi kung and meditation can be especially helpful in this regard '' says Susan Rabinowitz, Director of Manhattan's Taoist Arts Center.  ''They consist almost exclusively of practices that challenge and individuals assumptions and while they offer benefits to all practitioners those who wish to reap the greatest reward employ the soft of focused, error based, repetitious routines encouraged by Calvin and Coyle.'' These ancient practices unify body and mind, utilize the effects of gravity, center energy in the belly and create toned rather than tense muscles. The ideas are intrinsically different from the ones most westerners have learned and for many they are mind boggling concepts that challenging held assumptions and create a new manner or looking at the world.

Expanding our view and seeing the connections between things may not be easy, but it is vital to keeping our brains healthy. If we use the internal arts as a tool, the mind is offered a challenge to its usual manner of cognition, the body learns to experience itself in a new way, our awareness of self deepens and the brain created additional neurons.

Rabinowitz believes it is this unity of mind, body and intention that accounts for repeated tales of internal arts practitioners remaining alert throughout the length of their lives. She recounts a story told by her tai chi teacher, about a Chinese mathematician who studied chi kung in order to improve his memory. Until he practiced it, he could only hold three hundred equasions in his mind; after practicing chi kung he could hold hundreds more. While this is only anecdotal evidence, Rabinowitz who has been studying the internal arts since 1974 believes it is likely to be true and although she can't hold even ten equasions in her mind, she finds that these arts have helped to keep her energized, alert and open to new information.

In addition to retaining brain plasticity, she says  ''the internal arts offer an ideal tune-up for mind and body, promote health and well being and keep the brain active, relaxed and focused: offering practitioners a balanced merger of Calvin and Coyle''s  concentrated, repetitious, error-based practice with Taylor and Mezirow's cognitive challenges.  ''Everyone can experience the benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung'' she says,  ''All they have to do is find a teacher, join a class and practice, practice, practice.

the information in this article was found in the following places
Genius: The Modern View, by David Brooks NYTimes.com 2009/05/01
Gray Matter: Neurons make new connections during learning. by Barbara Strauch, NYTimes.com published 2009/12/29
Susan Rabinowitz is the Director of the Taoist Arts Center

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