dalai lamaIt is not in keeping for me to write about non-drumming topics on ChickDrummer. It wouldn’t make sense given the title of the blog. But in limiting the topics, I limit describing all the factors that go into my understanding of drumming and music.  One of the influences in life and in music is my meditation practice.  I have been a meditator since 2001 and I “taught” myself some basic principles of meditation from The Dummies Guide.  Over the years, I have read and meditated more, and this week I am in Washington D.C. attending a conference titled “Educating the World Citizen for the 21st Century.” Panelists include neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives and H.H. Dalai Lama.   For 6 hours a day for two days, I and about 1500 others have been hearing discussions about science, spirituality, and education.

I arrived in Washington D.C. excited but exhausted by a recent mini-reunion of friends from high school who flew in for a weekend in Chicago. I cooked omelets and french toast (“more butter, anyone?”)  in a hotel suite and we ate, drank coffee, and strolled around the Lincoln Park Zoo.  That time with my high school friends, it turns out, was a perfect preamble to a conference on education.  The first day, in 2 sessions, panelists discussed the challenges of teaching young people.  And throughout the day, I could not help but remember myself as a teenager.  My time with my high school friends reminded me that late adolescence was confusing for me, just as it  is for my students. The first session outlined the questions the conference panelists will tackle.  What are the positive qualities that future citizens will need to respond to recent global challenges with compassion, wisdom, creativity, and skill?  How do educators meet these challenges? And how can recent developments in neuroscience help?

Unlike a typical conference in which there are dozens or hundreds of concurrent sessions in conference hotel rooms,   all 1500-2000 participants meet in Constitution Hall and listen to presentations by neuroscientists, contemplatives, and educators, who are then questioned by H.H. Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s critical intelligence has often been described, but we were able to witness it firsthand as he questioned Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist.  Recent research on the brain has discovered two things: 1) the brain is “plastic”  meaning it can respond to environmental factors and can change, and 2) the brain makes new cells to the last day of life — neurogenesis.  In education, then, the question is: how do we capitalize on the brain’s plasticity?  Davidson, in describing plasticity, offered research that suggested early intervention in the development of the brain is better, but it is never too late.   The Dalai Lama paused and then asked:  “Does this apply to dementia?”  Davidson replied, “That’s a very good question.”   The Dalai Lama asked a question so good that one scientist observed, “As usual, Your Holiness,  you have created a whole new field of research.”  The Dalai Lama’s question shows that he cannot only absorb scientific information readily, but he can move one step beyond and ask for the next possible application. His question is astute:  if the brain can make new cells to the day we die, can we exploit this to aid those who suffer from dementia? In the end, Davidson said that they did not know if it applies to dementia.  The reason being that studies are done with terminally ill patients with non-neurological diseases. They are injected with a chemical that can mark the new cells, and once they have died, the brains are studied. There is no way to study this in a non-invasive procedure.  My guess is that a bunch of scientists are now going to try.

A presentation by Ronald Dahl, a scientist, expanded upon Davidson’s as he suggested that not only is the brain plastic, but at certain ages there is “unique plasticity.”   Between the ages of 10 and 15, new interactions are being created by different mental systems. So, while puberty may be an emotionally and physically challenging time, it is also a time when motivation and passion are accelerated.  “The skills to use control, effort, and attention to keep goals a part of behavior are strong at this time,” said Dahl.  But this period between 10 and 15 also has many challenges; the body has entered puberty, but the prefront cortex has not fully developed so the necessary cognitive processes are not yet in place.  The brain is not mature just when we need reason to calm our troubled teenage souls.  “This is a precarious time,” said Dahl,”and increases in mortality have to do with this imbalance.” And that was one of the stunning statistics of this conference offered by Davidson.  When we compare the 10 year period before adolescence (ages 4-14) with the next ten years (15-25), there is a 300% increase in mortality.  The increase in deaths is attributed to factors such as violence, drug abuse, and drunk driving.  Translation:  being a puberty-driven teenager could kill you.

So, day one of this conference has brought some revelations.  Your brain will grow until you die.  You are not stuck in your life. And if you survived the high school years in one piece, you’ve won half the battle. In the end, this conference and the findings of researchers has everything to do with why I became a drummer at 37.  I and my brain needed the stimulation that drumming gave me. When I learned how to play a drumset, I built new neural pathways. It helped with depression, anxiety, and ennui.   I also became more physically dextrous. My right and my left foot can play different rooms: eighth notes on the right, quarter or whole notes on the left foot.  This desire to drum towards the end of a long tour of graduate school helped me complete my studies. I don’t think I could have finished my doctorate if I had not started drumming. My plastic brain made it possible.  Thank you, brain.

Stay tuned…day two of the conference is tomorrow.