Fascination with the Brain

Walking along Jericho Beach as a little girl, this piece of wood screamed “brain” to me.  This was long before the fascination with the brain had extended beyond neuroscientists and doctors, to psychologists, to educators, to anyone aging and fearing cognitive decline.  The brain held secrets that were not readily apparent to the naked eye.  It was the also the basis of the best bonding with my neurosurgeon father.

Dr. Peter Dyck is not a man who relished talk of feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations or divergent opinions.  However he has always been an example of the consummate learner.  He survived war times in Germany.  When he was 12 years old, he was sponsored to come to Canada with his mother and siblings by his uncle in Alberta.  He learned English and excelled in school.  He ended up working on his step-fathers farm in Abbotsford while attending school.  When a cow would die, he did not shed a tear.  He would dissect it behind the barn.   My aunt boiled many a chicken bones so he could reassemble them.  When I would go on rounds with him during summer visits to Los Angeles, the nurses would run when they heard his footsteps.  He was demanding of staff and took patient care very seriously.  Dad became fascinated with the possibility of destroying, rather than removing a brain tumour by using a local anaesthetic and a three dimensional C/T scanner to avoid the trauma of opening the skull.  Radioactive material in a small tube was targeted through a tiny hole in the skull into the centre of the brain tumour.  The concentration used would result in the radioactivity reaching only the tumour cells.  A team was formed including him as the neurosurgeon, Armand Bouzaglou, the radiation oncologist and Livia Bohman, the radiologist, to travel to Germany in 1981 to study the technique for stereotactic isotope implantation with Professor Fritz Mundinger at the University of Freiburg.   This technique was brought back to the USA and his first book about it’s success in avoiding the trauma of a full craniotomy was dedicated to the patients whose hope against overwhelming odds brought about this endeavour.

Not even neuroscientists agree on the inner workings of the brain.  However asking a question and our attitude seem to be the key components informing our brain and resulting in amazing accomplishments and sometimes survival.  Viktor Frankl’s answer to his question, “Why do I need to survive?” allowed him to walk out of Auschwitz and go on to develop his theory of logotherapy, write his influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and help many people find a way to cope with the challenges in their lives.   Norman Doidge details many examples of therapies that have allowed the brain to heal in ways that are still outside of mainstream medical practice in The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of  Neuroplasticity .  John J. Ratey, MD, in his book SPARK – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, provides a compelling argument as to why exercise is integral to our ability to cope with stress, learn, as well as maintain good mental and physical health.  The brain is central in all facets of our lives yet understanding how it works is still somewhat elusive.

Educators, such as Eric Jensen started to focus educators’s attention on Teaching with the Brain in Mind  in the 90’s.  Educators are now seriously considering the implications of what neuroplasticity means in the classroom.  Previously held conceptions about the limits of some learners no longer apply, and standardized testing has become one indicator of specific learning strengths and weaknesses, but not an accurate measure of future success.    Perhaps the greatest outcome has been talking to children about how their brain works and how they learn best.   This puts the responsibility and joy learning with the child and allows them to move beyond just looking for a good mark on an assignment.  Giving children the capacity to talk about the connections they are making in their learning and providing numerous opportunities to share their ideas and discoveries, opens up the possibilities to ask new questions and see their peers, teachers and parents as partners in a collaborative process.