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A New Brain for the Summer
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

Since the body and soul are bound together, integrated into one composite entity, it is obvious that every event occurring to the soul will set off a similar occurrence in the body.  - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.362.

    
 
Ahh. Summer.
 
No more pencils, no more books... The kids are free! ...but not too free. They need structured activities to keep them safe, happy and well, so the prevalent custom is to send them to camp. They make new friends, learn skills, have fun, and go on trips. They may even do some book learning, especially if they go to a Chabad camp where learning is a fun yet integral part of the experience.
 
The integration of spirit, mind and body is a popular theme in wellness circles these days. My first exposure to the concept was on a school trip to Eastern Canada. I was gazing out the bus window while passing through the campus of Mt. Allison University when an odd inscription caught my eye on a very big building with classic looking pillars.
 
Engraved in stone above the entrance were the words "mens sana" which immediately prompted two thoughts. The first was, "Wow, that's a big building just for a shvitz, and the second was, realizing that the word sauna has a "u" in it, "How many years has that spelling mistake been there?" 
 
It only took a moment till I caught on for as the bus moved ahead I saw the rest of the inscription, "in mens corpus." My Latin was never that good but it didn't take much shvitz to surmise that this was the athletic building and the message was, "A sound mind in a sound body."
 
For some, mental and physical health would be rewarding enough for a kid's summer camp experience, but not for the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Looking ahead to the coming academic year, he compared camp to a long jump. If you stand and jump, there's only so far you can leap, but if you take a few steps back and get a run at it, you can jump a great deal farther.
 
A Jew needs to be involved in study all the time, and at first glance the summer break is a distraction from that mission. The Rebbe points out to us that the child learns more extensively and more energetically in the coming year because of those few steps back in the summer. And that extra umph is worth it as we will shortly see.
 
On one of his visits to Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York, the Rebbe said a chassidic discourse[1] on Psalm 23 that speaks directly to spirit-mind-body integration. In that 1956 talk, thirty years before anyone in academia started taking these things seriously, and fifty years before the concept became popular,[2] he spoke about neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change physically as a result of mental exercise.
 
Citing the Zohar[3], the Rebbe explains that "the material of the brain is relative to the intellect, and moreover, the material of the brain becomes purified[4] by extensive intellectual study, and even more so through intense intellectual concentration, because it is a vessel for and unites with the intellect that dwells within it." In another talk,[5] he explains the two-way impact of soul-body interactions, going into detail about "physical creases in the brain" that form when comprehension is achieved by virtue of intensive and extensive intellectual effort.[6]
 
The Rebbe elsewhere[7] expands on the subject, explaining that superficial study does not register physical change whereas much deep study will actually change, not only the structure but even the dynamics of the brain. Moreover the furrows thereby created increase the surface area and hence the mental capacity of the brain.
 
An additional pedagogical trick he cites (forbidden in any library - shh, they're reading - but mandated in any yeshiva study hall) is to gesture, sway and speak aloud while learning since the more physically involved we are in the learning experience, the better the lessons are remembered.[8]
 
Of course this all makes a lot of sense now, but it's only in recent years that secular science and society have started to acknowledge any of this. For centuries the brain was considered a fixed organ and intellect was either a physical result of it or some kind of a ghost in the machinery. Either way, the structure and dynamics of the brain were believed to be as hard wired as your motherboard.
 
No longer.
 
We have watched in the lab as sea snails double their neural connections  through learning.[9] We have seen the same in rodents, monkeys and even humans. We have seen how a stimulating environment increases the weight, health, blood flow and oxygenation of the brain.[10] We have seen mentally retarded people train their brains to professional performance.[11] We have discovered how to cure dyslexia and learning disabilities by using specific exercises to build and reinforce new neural networks.[12] We can use imagination to cure illness[13] and computerized brain exercises to eliminate ADHD[14] and slow down aging.[15] Brain training software didn't even exist a decade ago and now it's a 300 million dollar industry.[16]
 
Returning to the green pastures discourse[1], the Rebbe drew an analogy comparing that infinitely miraculous, dynamic place between our temples to the Temple in Jerusalem. The meat of the matter is that just as the physical brain is organically engineered to be the nexus of spirit, mind and body within man, so too is the site of the Temple physically predisposed and sensitively primed to serve its specific function of unifying G-d, mankind and the physical world at large.
 
There's an expression, "What happens at camp stays at camp," but in this case it is not so. The Rebbe's green pastures discourse is itself a "mind over matter" phenomenon, exemplifying the newfound synergy of Torah and science, a modern fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about the times of Moshiach.[17]
 
Poetically, it was Gan Israel campers who came up with the song, "We want Moshiach NOW!" It's been repeated so often, so intensely, and so vocally, with clapping and dancing, joy and anticipation that I'm sure the very foundation of the Temple mount is resonating and ready for the time of all times when not just the kids, but we all, will be as free as a camper on a summer day.
 
[1] Talk of 16 Tamuz 5716 (1956)
[2] as explained at length in the 2007 NY Times bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge (Penguin).
[3] Zohar III p.140a, and p.262a
[4] similar to discoveries of Michael Merzenich who found that neurons that fire together wire together, enabling them to fire in a synchrony that increases their signal/noise ratio, thus "purifying" both the medium and the message.
[5] 23 Tevet 5720 (1960)
[6] Sefer HaMaamarim 5687 (1927), p.254
[7] Sefer HaSichos, 13 Menachem-Av 5750 (1990), p.120
[8] Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin p.54a
[9]
http://erickandel.blogspot.com/2007/09/1-kandels-big-discovery.html
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rosenzweig
[11] http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/thelens/2008/fixingmybrain/
[12] www.learningbreakthroughprogram.com
[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo
[14] http://www.playattention.com/ABOUT-US/PAbrochure.pdf
[15] http://www.positscience.com/science
[16] http://www.sharpbrains.com/market-report/
[17] Likutei Sichos, Vol.15, p.42ff.
 
 
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit
www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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