I recently had a very odd health scare that landed me in the hospital for a couple of days. That was a first. Lots of tests later, I’m pronounced A-OK. Hooray! One of the tests I had was an MRI of my brain. In his notes back to me via my health record, my doc told me that I have a very young brain for my age and ever since, my mantra has been, “I’m young at brain.”
Our brains are fascinating things, aren’t they? I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, this week. A neuroscience page-turner, I tell you, as well as a great social critique of our techno-centric world. Our brains’ feature of plasticity is amazing. It ability to change and adapt and mold its neural pathways into all sorts of routes is amazing. I highlighted the following passage, thinking of how true it is both literally and metaphorically:
The adult brain, it turns out, is not just plastic but, as James Olds, a professor or neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, put it, “very plastic.” Or, as Merzenich himself says, “massively plastic.” The plasticity diminishes as we get older – brains do get stuck in their ways – but it never goes away. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. “The brain,” observes Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”
It seems like we’re hardwired for flexibility and change, despite how much we tend to not like it. Sometimes I reflect on a decade of being a librarian and it seems like one big change. Very little has stayed constant, aside from my physical location. I’ve remained in my same cubicle since the day that I arrived here, not something that everyone in my Library can say. But my job, focus, skill set, projects, responsibilities, colleagues… these have all changed, and generally more than once. Being a librarian is, in some ways, like being a brain. And plasticity best be a part of it. We’d better be able to reprogram and alter ourselves on the fly, too, if we want to be successful and/or remain relevant.
Yesterday, I went to a lunchtime talk on campus. It was in the Faculty Conference Room, a large room with many round tables set up around the room. I saw a table of my colleagues across the way, but after I picked up my lunch, I sat the table next to them. I didn’t really even think about it. It’s become my “neural pathway” to mix and mingle at these events. It’s become my habit to meet new people and strike up conversations with them about what they do, wherever I go on campus. My empty table soon became filled up with 7 people that I’d never met before. They included the Associate Vice Chancellor for HR Diversity Management, someone from our Office of Communications, a recruiter for a research study, two lab researchers, and a student. I learned that our Associate Vice Chancellor studied engineering, of all things. “How did you get from engineering to human resources and diversity?” I asked her. “It’s all about solving problems,” she replied.
I learned that we have a relatively new Vice Chancellor of Communications. I learned that one of our large, multi-site research studies that I know about is drawing to a close. I learned that people are curious about social media and how to use it in their jobs. All at my one table. And… everyone at my table met a librarian that they didn’t know before that lunch. And they learned a bit about the Library, too. We all made connections.
This isn’t the way that I used to do my job. It’s not how I used to view and think about people throughout the Medical School, i.e. constantly making connections, both in my mind and in person. My “young for my age” brain has changed over time and I’ve learned to do these things almost second nature. And I’m sure that over more time, I’ll continue to let the plasticity of my brain do it’s thing. I’m willing to bet that old brains doing new tricks will keep ourselves, and our profession, healthy.
Postscript: After publishing this, I happened to see a tweet that said Nicholas Carr will be a speaker at this year’s Boston Book Festival. I’ll be sure to try and catch him, if I’m not dressed up as a book character when he’s speaking!