Rewiring the Brain Through Creativity

Neuroplasticity.  Until the late Dr. Gene D. Cohen mentioned it in his keynote speech at the First Positive Aging Conference at Eckerd College, I had never heard of the term.  It describes the brain’s ability to regenerate and rewire itself throughout the lifespan — a pretty radical idea not too long ago.  You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this as more people come into their 60s and take stock of the years still left to them.  Recommended reading: Dr. Cohen’s ground-breaking book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. The cover photographs of older people, kayaking, swimming, dancing, and making art hint at creativity as “the secret to living with one’s entire being.”

Most of us already know how important it is to be physically active throughout life.  But the connection between a lower BMI (body mass index) and brain function is less well understood.  Here’s a  link to the Franklin Institute’s excellent research on this subject.  Gene Cohen was perhaps the first, however, to suggest that creativity also had an important role to play in staying mentally fit as we age.

As challenging as it can be to change sedentary habits, awakening our innate creativity through some form of artistic expression requires even more will power.  As JFK once commented in another context, we have become ‘a nation of spectators’ as opposed to the poets, writers, painters, potters, photographers, dancers, singers, or musicians we might yet become.   Dr. Cohen called this late blooming the Encore Phase of life, a “phenomenon [that] taps the inner pressure that many feel to do or say something before it’s too late.  Not to overlook the obvious, the phrase applies strongly to the field of music, reminding us of how many noted musical achievements have come late or at the end of a musician’s or composer’s career or life cycle — like the late works of Verdi, Liszt, and Stravinsky.”

One way to get started is to take inspiration of your favorite elder artist.  Matisse?  Martha Graham?  Tony Bennet?   One in my personal hall of fame is poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz.   Some years ago, I had the privilege of hearing him give a reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.  He was in his late nineties then (he died in 2006 at age 100), and looked physically frail.  But when he read the lyrical, Touch Me, his voice was strong and one felt a sense of an artist come into his finest hour.  I have written very little poetry since I left graduate school, but I’ve found my way back to it.  Perhaps for T.S. Eliot, April was ‘the cruelest month.’  But for me it’s National Poetry Month.  I’m juicing up those neurons, one verse at a time.

More on neuroplasticity

The Decade of the Brain

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