Conversations with Anna, Part 4: The Brain, Use it or Lose it?*



East of Port Alberni, Vancouver Island: The Brain Thinks Lofty Thoughts


Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
Jeffrey Eugenides, (Middlesex)

 The Brain


Everyone’s Bucket List should include an obligatory trip into the brain, that beautiful domain, that inner space, that ample geography where spirituality and everyday living intersect, where the big thoughts of science and spirituality and the trivial, the quotidian and the routine co-exist.

Conversations with Anna took a turn off the strictly spiritual path and into an examination of the novelties in brain research towards the end of the decade.  It may have been a result of witnessing the psychological unraveling of a neighbour mid way through the decade of conversations, that Anna and her Reader became fascinated with the brain. No amount of psychotropic medications nor electro convulsive therapies could stop the intractable progression of depression that led to the undoing of Anna’s long time friend. The loss of memory and of cognition by gradual dementia or by vascular events such as strokes are common place in the aging population in any case, and Anna and her Reader were by then, members in very good standing of the geriatric set.

Anna Kapusinsky, in a prior incarnation as nurse Kappy to her patients, was once again in her element recalling the anatomy of the brain and the function of each of its parts while reading The Brain that Changes Itself  by Norman Doige.

Anna had been at McGill University when Dr. Wilder Penfield pioneered his brain mapping techniques which would lead to the exciting current findings about the brain and its still unknown potential.

Discussions of memory were absorbing: long term and short term storage and retrieval of  memory, the impact of physical trauma, aging and memory loss, brain trauma through accident or by strokes, rewiring the circuits of the brain through therapy and especially the discovery of neuroplasticity.

The discovery of neuroplasticity, that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains, even into old age, is the most important breakthrough in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.

The examination of this emerging research in the brain gave comfort to Anna and her Reader that even at this stage of our lives there was still room to grow. We were assured that even with the normal massive losses of brain cells, the aging population can still experience growth of neurons. Recent research encourages the use of the aging brain in ways that are more demanding than for routine everyday life.

The Wisdom Paradox confirmed that a long life of experiences confers benefits despite the obvious age related declines. Seniors still possess faculties worth celebrating:

In THE WISDOM PARADOX, world-renowned neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg argues that although some mental abilities (such as recent-memory recall) decline as the mind enters the autumn season of our lifespan and we increasingly experience ‘senior moments’, the brain actually becomes more powerful in its ability to recognize patterns. As a result, we are able to make decisions at more intuitive and effective levels

Luria Neuroscience Institute

 For the curious, below are interesting links to the books discussed

Wilder Penfield

The Brain (

Brain anatomy

Pattern recognition and the acquisition of wisdom. Goldenberg (The Wisdom Paradox)


*Post Scriptum: Of course “use it or lose it” is a gross oversimplification. Some diseases of the brain may not be mitigated by whatever means one can imagine. At least one respected family member, a brilliant man, a physicist who remained intellectually engaged all his life was struck with Lewy Body Dementia. You may use it and still lose it.


Becky Thatcher on Pheasant Lake, 1981

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