Our Fascinating, Flexible Brain

The BBC today has an interesting story on experiments concerning the operation of the brain.  The experiments tracked signals between different parts of the brains of rats.  They showed that different parts of the brain were unexpectedly communicating with each other and that information looped back rather than proceeding in rigid lines of communication. The BBC story notes that the study and the apparently interconnected nature of the brain “could prove to be a powerful tool in analysing how the brain processes information.”

I wonder, however, whether the study has significantly broader implications.  Recently I read a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge.  The basic concept underlying that book is called neuroplasticity, and it posits that the brain is not “hard-wired” like the motherboard of a computer, but rather is a flexible collection of cells that can serve different functions.  The encouraging message of neuroplasticity is that people who suffer brain dysfunction due to strokes, blunt trauma, or other forms of injury are not inevitably doomed to live the rest of their lives unable to walk or talk.  Instead, the book reports on instances where, through carefully planned tasks, repetitive actions, and determination, people have been able to reroute their brain functions through healthy cells and regain their lost powers of speech and movement.  The study that is the subject of the BBC reports, by demonstrating that the brain does not function in a rigid “top-down” fashion, seems to further confirm the accuracy of the concept of neuroplasticity.

What does it mean for those of us who haven’t suffered brain dysfunction?  The lesson is that you can work to enhance mental acuity and balance as you age by taking steps to make sure that the brain and nerve connections stay sharp.  Do a crossword puzzle or a math problem.  Try to learn a new foreign language.  Walk barefoot around your yard and neighborhood.  And if you feel yourself slipping, don’t accept it with a sigh of resignation.  Instead, view it is a challenge to be overcome — because that is exactly what it is.

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A Foul Plague Of Biting Black Flies

Household flies are a nuisance.  They buzz around the house, occasionally alight on an unwashed cup or bowl, and are hard to catch.  Imagine, however, if instead of just being an annoyance they also inflicted sharp physical pain.

Such is the case with black flies.  We were exposed to the tender mercies of black flies during our Hen Island adventure, and they are a menace.  The black flies look just like regular flies — to this untrained eye, at least — but they inflict a vicious bite.  The blood-sucking little devils tended to bite at about ankle level, which makes it difficult to get them before they fly away and then land on your other leg.  The bites turn red and itch for a day or two.

These flies are ubiquitous in the Midwest in the areas around lakes and rivers and are much despised, for good reason.  They apparently are capable of biting even through clothing, and they seem to sneer at bug spray.  Can a culture really call itself civilized when its people are tormented by such dastardly creatures?  Isn’t there some kind of scientist or researcher, somewhere, who can figure out how to effectively kill black flies?  Anyone who wanted to make a fortune would be well advised to develop a means of ridding the world of this wretched pest.