Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Me and my brain


I haven’t been an active blogger this year, and writing does not come naturally any more. This is quite remarkable given that I earned my living throughout my whole career, over fifty years, by writing. Yet now, anything longer that a photo caption on facebook feels strenuous, or rather totally unappealing. I was recently asked to contribute a piece to a Festschrift for a retiring colleague, which is a pleasurable task as it can be light in tone and devoid of heavy referencing. Yet as I considered possible topics and browsed through my files for something to recycle, I realised that there was no way I could do it. It is as if my brain has simply shut down its areas of academic thinking.

Reflecting upon this weird phenomenon, with my patchy knowledge of neuroscience, I realise that it is not just “as if”. My brain has indeed shut down the storage of scholarly approaches. When I decided, some time before my actual retirement, that I didn’t want to continue any academic pursuits, my brain made a mental note of it – sorry, unintended pun, but probably suitable. The brain is a very economic machine. When it knows that some portions of accumulated knowledge will not be used ever again, it seals off those storage rooms. Anyone who has tried knows how hard it is to come back to academic studies after a long break. The brain needs to re-learn to receive, process and store information. I not only find it next to impossible to write, but also extremely hard to read anything work-related. Former-work related. I have no problems reading instructions for assembling a miniature four-poster bed or for arranging a Basic Slanting-Style Moribana in Reverse.

Being a good housekeeper, the brain knows that there is new and radically different information coming in these days. Information more connected to the right hemisphere, to hand-eye coordination for crafts, to concrete orientation in space when I lead walks. This information needs new neuronal paths to be created, which in turn needs energy. The brain is energy-hungry; it uses 20% of all energy we receive from nutrition, more than any organ in our body. There is no point maintaining paths between sealed storage rooms. It’s a waste of energy. The brain hates waste. It is now busy making new connections, supporting new paths, making room for visual and haptic skills I didn’t need before.

When friends and colleagues tell me that I will one day want to write another scholarly book, I know for sure it won’t happen because I would then need to persuade the brain to reopen the sealed rooms and rebuild the dismantled pathways. It would take years. I don’t have these years, and it’s not worth while. Once again, to allow the brain to shut down significant bits of the left hemisphere was a deliberate and well thought-through decision that I don’t regret. Moreover, if I had known fifty years ago, when I was choosing my career, what I know now I probably wouldn’t have chosen to become an academic. I would have trained to become a garden architect or a cabinet-maker or a desert explorer. I have no time to pursue any of these careers other than on a small, even a miniature scale. But that’s enough for me, and my brain supports my new endeavours.

There is one area that the brain has kept open, and it belongs to both left and right hemisphere. I am still able to learn a new language.

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