Have you thought about your brain lately? As I learn more about the brain, I am awed by its amazing ability to learn and its flexibility. Since most PWs live and work in a host culture, our ability to adapt is vital. Lose that and you lose your effectiveness. Thankfully, God has fashioned us with the capacity to adapt right from our conception.
I am more impressed than ever before at how wonderfully we are made. Take a fresh look at Psalm 139:14-15 in the New Living Translation:
“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous–how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.”
Consider how our brain develops. Master interviewer Charlie Rose did a series on the human brain. Here are some of their amazing findings. I know we overuse the word,”amazing,” but even these scientists used it about their discoveries.
In the womb, by the fourth week, the first structures that will make up the brain are formed and by 17 weeks the brain is taking the shape that we all recognize. Because the brain is confined to such a small space, all the additional growth occurs by forming curves and twists. More and more cells are being packed into the contortions and gyrations until at birth the brain will have about 100 billion nerve cells.
Huda Zoghbi said, “Inside the brain something like a dance is happening. In early pregnancy a few cells are born and they have to migrate and find a place within the cortex of the brain. The next group of cells will divide and migrate, they’ll go past the old ones and take a new position. And this process will continue until you have six layers.
“All these layers have very specialized neurons for the brain to function properly. Think of a thousand dancers at the opening of the Olympic ceremony. Imagine them having to make the color of the Olympic flag and to have to perform a coordinated dance. If any of them takes the wrong spot, the dance will be ruined. And that’s exactly the situation with the brain.” With all that complexity, there are so few mistakes that result in serious brain defects. We are woven together so very well in the womb!
After birth brain development continues in many forms. Many of these brain cells have to make branches, and the neurons reach out to communicate with each other. The point where they contact is called the synapse. Between two months and two years of age babies have the largest number of synapses they will have throughout life. The brain is actually being sculpted during this period.
Through time and experience some of these synapses will be eliminated and others will be strengthened. The concept of use it or lose it takes effect here. Those synapses we don’t use are pruned and the ones we use are strengthened. Although there are periods in our lives that more of this is happening than at others, throughout our lives the more brain exercise we do, the more flexible our brain remains.
During early childhood, no matter what continent a baby is born on, they have the ability to learn language. “All children follow a set of universal stages in language development. At three months they’ll coo, at seven months they’ll babble, at a year, a single word, at 18 months two-word combinations, and at the age of three full sentences. They will talk your leg off. In the area of language, from birth to seven years of age, kids are masters. Whether they hear a single language or two or three, they will acquire them effortlessly. At seven this ability begins to decline and past puberty the brain does not work the same way and we don’t learn second languages as well.”
Children learn all their language sounds from the people that speak directly to them. Children exposed to a different language on TV do not learn. Social interaction is vital to language learning. Patricia Kuhl said, “So if you want to learn a language you learn it from another human being. You cannot learn it from a TV set.”
Our brains are so marvelous that the very act of making friends who speak another language facilitates our learning their language! When God sends us to people who speak another language, he knows it is a win-win situation. We make acquaintances and they help us learn their language. As we share our message and our life with them they become family.
From The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD, I want to share some insights into cultural learning.
It seems we learn our native culture from our earliest days. Here is Dr. Doidge:
“The tastes our culture creates—in food, in type of family, in love, in music—often seem ‘natural,’ even though they may be acquired tastes. The ways we conduct nonverbal communication—how close we stand to other people, the rhythms and volume of our speech, how long we wait before interrupting a conversation—all seem ‘natural’ to us, because they are so deeply wired into our brains.
“When we change cultures, we are shocked to learn that these customs are not natural at all. Cultural differences are so persistent because when our native culture is learned and wired into our brains, it becomes ‘second nature,’ seemingly as ‘natural’ as many of the instincts we are born with.
“Even when we make a modest change, such as moving to a new house, we discover that something as basic as our sense of space, which seems so natural to us, and numerous routines we were not even aware we had, must slowly be altered while the brain rewires itself.”
So when we feel very disoriented in a new culture, it is for good reason. Our brain is in a time of enormous rewiring. Thank God that He made us to that we can be flexible and adapt!
As an example of the kind of adaptation we are created to make, we can see what happens when Asians immigrate to the West. Research has proven that Westerners perceive their world more analytically, observing individual parts. Easterners approach the world more holistically, seeing the inter-relatedness of things. Dr. Doidge states, “After several years in America the Japanese begin to perceive in a way indistinguishable from Americans.” What is most exciting about this for us is that when we change cultures, our brain begins to perceive in a new way. We can expect that as we become more comfortable in our new culture, we will begin to see things more as our new friends and neighbors perceive the world around them. Many of you have experienced that, and many of you are new at it. Veteran PW’s, give your younger, newer colleagues some patient understanding and support. Brains can change, but it isn’t easy or quick.
Additionally Dr Doidge states, “Children of Asian-American immigrants perceive in a way that reflects both cultures. They sometimes process scenes holistically, and sometimes they focus on prominent objects.” Our children will benefit from this additional way to perceive their world. They will never be as insular in their thinking as their peers who have never had the opportunity to live in a different culture. And as we know, that helps to explain the stresses they feel on reentry.
The Older Brain
Finally, as we are all aging, here are some findings on maintaining mental flexibility into old age. Bottom line: we need to continue to make new stem cells and to prolong their life. There are two things we can do to help this process:
First is mental exercise. There is a demonstrable difference in the mental agility of those who continually use their brain and those who don’t. Doing mental math, playing word games and puzzles, Sudoku, and reading challenging books all help keep our minds active and healthy. For those of us living overseas, we can easily substitute learning a language or a musical instrument for book or computer games. Continue to be observant and exercise your memory.
Second is physical activity. Physical activity creates new neurons and increases the flow of oxygen to the brain. We don’t need brutal workouts, but we do need consistent natural movement of the limbs. Walking at a good pace, concentrating on improving our balance, and any other activity that raises our pulse, also increases dopamine that helps our ability to pay attention. So keep thinking and keep moving, ladies.
We are so marvelously made. Woven into the design of our brains is all that is necessary for us to learn and adapt to very different cultures. Going between cultures is not without struggle, but even that rewiring makes us more flexible. Give thanks today for the Creator’s intricate design and purpose. And, if you haven’t given your brain a thought lately, think about it now. There, you just made it stronger!