Brains, tradition and family history

Mayim Bialik is intense — and not that different from the geeky scientist she plays on TV’s #1 sitcom  “Big Bang Theory.” I resisted the show for a long time because of its canned laughter, which for me indicates phony silliness. Whoa, not so fast. “Big Bang Theory” is seriously funny. And now I have some backstory.

Recently I interviewed Bialik for a preview story on a major Jewish fundraising women’s brunch, which took place this morning. Bialik bounded onstage looking pretty much like Amy Farrah Fowler, only missing the glasses and the bobby-pinned hair.

In real life Bialik is an actress, mother, wife, religious Jewish woman and a neuroscientist, what most interests me. Studying neuropsychology at UCLA she discovered that all that good oxytocin — often referred to as the bonding hormone — has positive affects on the brain. No surprise, really, but science is about the evidence.

Once she and her husband had kids they decided that a lot of closeness — natural childbirth, breastfeeding, children sleeping near or in the same bed with parents, homeschooling — all part of attachment parenting, was the way to go.

Bialik spoke a lot this morning about taking on the values of her maternal grandmother, being closely connected to her grandmother’s Orthodox Jewish religious traditions.  “Attachment parenting” reminds me of many of the childrearing beliefs my post-1960s friends and I had about raising our kids, especially holding our babies a lot and nursing on demand.

Where am I going with this? Sure family history and tradition influence our behavior, how our brains work. To stimulate our brains as we age we’re supposed to learn new things, stretch our thinking…that’s what all the studies tell us these days.

From the online newsletter “Brain Pickings”: Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 – the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt – our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day – and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

Me again: When does family history or habit or dogma allow us to leap into original thinking? Is there such a thing? How do we best nurture our brains?

Guess I’m  little intense too.

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2 Responses to Brains, tradition and family history

  1. Great blog. Now, I actually have something to watch on TV.

  2. sheilawill says:

    Thanks Amy! Have you seen “The Wire?” Very intense, real, brilliant and has its humorous moments. Best program ever on TV.

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