Av 5777

Av 5777

Do our brains change with increased learning?
I am an enthusiastic reader of Educational Neuroscience, which is the practice of applying
neurology to benefit classroom instruction. In my previous blogpost, I wrote about a growth
mindset being almost a prerequisite for lifelong learning. As I was preparing for this post, I
came across an article about the Ari”Zal whose Yahrtzeit is on ה׳ אב, the fifth of Av. What is the
connection?
In many places, the Ari”Zal was called Ari”Zal Hachai, the Ari”Zal the living. Ironically, reflecting
on his Yahrtzeit, this description seems quite out of place. Life and passing are opposite states.
But the Ari”Zal’s activities during his lifetime were life giving even to the generations who
followed his. On a Yahrtzeit, one’s life aspirations and activities are brought out in a more
revealed form, and bring goodness to all of those who follow in his path. This is the Chai, life
reflected in the Yahrtzeit. Even more, with each successive year, the impact of the person’s life
goals become even stronger for those living today.
The Ari”Zal was one of those very special people who made the secrets of the Torah more
accessible to the average person. No we are not going to sit down and learn the Zohar, but
there are many teachings, as in the study of Chassidut, where the concepts the Ari”Zal taught
have been translated into a language comprehensible to many, each according to his level. The
Ari”Zal initiated exposing the subsequent generations after his own, to learning the deepest
secrets of the Torah on a level that they could comprehend. How can our minds absorb such
depth of Torah, that until that time, was reserved for the unique, few great scholars? In the
writings derived from the teachings of the Ari”Zal himself, it says that resulting from increased
and more in-depth study, especially Torah, there is an expansion and growth in the physical
tissue of the brain and the development of additional grooves and furrows in the grey matter
that did not exist before. With this added physical growth, the individual is thus capable of
continually increasing in amount and depth of subsequent learning.
Since the mid 1990’s, neuroscience has made enormous strides in understanding how the brain
develops when nurtured and in contrast what happens in view of the lack of stimulation.
Marian Diamond has made it her life’s work to explore what a stimulated environment can do
for a growing person, throughout life. The brain, what was once believed to be an organ which
had a cap on its growth cycle somewhere in the teen years, has since been demonstrated to
have a lifetime of dendritic growth when stimulated by living in a rich and inspiring
environment. In her book, Magic trees of the mind, she attempts to clarify with concrete
scientific evidence how different environments affect children, and that continued stimulation
impacts the ability of people past childhood to learn dynamically throughout their lives.
What a positive message to take with us during the three weeks, that are traditionally less
happy and joyous times. CyberSem takes this position seriously, making robust Torah learning
easily accessible for women of all ages.

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