PaLatté Coffee & Art; “The Brain That Changes Itself”

Bismillah … In thinking about how I wanted to do this, I came up with the following idea: each blog post, inshaAllah, will have as its introduction a new place that I visit. This will help to add some variety to each writing, as well as to motivate me to travel and spend time in new places.

The first place that I will “feature” is called PaLatté Coffee & Art, located on 150 Fulton Street Southeast. I wouldn’t recommend it, however; the music inside was very loud, and that basically ruins the atmosphere. One thing that you’ll find out about me, is that music in public places really bothers me. But, I’m hopeful for the future; the strange time that we live in will eventually reach a terminus, and something much better will emerge.

I used to go to Starbucks, but I can’t really do that anymore, due to the music inside the café being so loud. Part of it, I think, is a result of corporate culture; sometimes, if a corporation tries to do something, it can gradually devolve and become worse. But there are other factors as well, one of them being the generally faster pace of life which we see all around us. So if you have to choose between going to a corporate chain or a local café, I would always recommend the latter.

When thinking about new places to visit, or just having a place to go to in the city, I prefer going to coffee shops, and every once in a while to bookstores. The reason is that I like to find places where I can read, write, and think, to the extent that this is possible for me. As you’ll also find out, I have had my share of affliction, which has significantly limited my ability to experience the world. But some of that has changed in recent months, alhamdulillah; and I have been blessed with a newfound energy, with which I have been able to do more things. With that came the ability to start regularly journaling my thoughts, and to slowly, but surely, experience some kind of a mental recovery. God knows best if this will continue.

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I’ve been trying to lay out some kind of a longer-term plan for these writings. I have a bit of perfectionism inside of me, which means that I don’t like to do something unless it has been done in a reasonably professional manner. This tendency could, of course, be considered a good thing. I figured that, starting out, I would first spend some time looking at other blogs, and trying to figure out what a good word-length would be for one of these posts. That way, I could get an idea of how much I should write. If the word-length was to be too short, it would feel like a deficiency in writing; if it was too long, then I guess that would not be appropriate for the average reader. After doing a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that an average length for something like this should be between two- to three-thousand words, per entry. So I guess that’s good to know. Having a basic writing format in mind, I’ll share a bit about myself, and what I hope to accomplish with these writings.

I always liked reading books. When I was about eight years old, my family moved from Germany to the United States, and I learned how to speak English fairly well within the first few months of elementary school. One of the first book series that I remember reading as a child was R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps®. Recently, during this past Fall season, I decided to try reading some of the Goosebumps® series again, to see what my perspective would be like, and also because I like to observe and think about different aspects of culture, even if it is childrens’ books. I made it through the first four books of the series, and then I lost interest, simply because they are intended for children, so the content was not very engaging for me.

I enjoy reading a variety of genres, and I try to maintain a consistency in reading a certain number of pages per day. In this post, I decided to introduce and recommend to others a book called: The Brain That Changes Itself, by Dr. Norman Doidge (© 2007). I read it once before, about two years ago; but it’s amazing how many details we forget, and how much we can benefit from going back and taking notes on what we’ve read. The subtitle of the book is: “Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.” A subtitle like this is important, I think, because it is stories like these that give people a practical hope that they could, in fact, get better one day.

Speaking of getting better: During the beginning of this past March, I was greatly blessed to be able to spend two weeks at a spiritual and health retreat in the city of Windom, Texas, called: Siddhayatan. While there, I was able to engage in a type of journaling/writing which felt very liberating: I simply wrote about whatever came to mind, often as a result of the books that I was reading.

There is a tendency in some of us, I think, if we have shown an interest in literature or critical thought, to feel as if whatever we think about a particular subject has very little importance, and is thus not worth writing down. Partly, this is true; and I think that it reflects a certain humility which is very important to hold on to, as it grounds us more firmly in reality, and allows us to subordinate ourselves to the much greater intellects that have come before us, and to learn from them. As time goes on, however, it can become difficult to keep everything “bottled up” inside of us. I guess that is why I am writing this; it is not something which is necessarily even under my control, though for a long time I did intentionally restrain myself from putting thoughts on paper.

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The author begins the preface of his book with the following sentence: “This book is about the revolutionary discovery that the human brain can change itself, as told through the stories of the scientists, doctors, and patients who have together brought about these astonishing transformations” (xiii). From the outset, we have a message of optimism, which can instill hope in those of us who have struggled in our lives with some kind of a mental ailment. The author then tells us that a historical understanding of the brain, however, used to be much different: “For four hundred years, this venture would have been inconceivable, because mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed” (xiii). He adds to this: “The theory of the unchanging brain decreed that people who were born with brain or mental limitations, or who sustained brain damage, would be limited or damaged for life” (xiv). He concludes these first paragraphs with additional explanatory notes, and then writes that when he began receiving news about people who had made extraordinary improvements in their cognitive functioning, he was compelled to travel far and wide in pursuit of answers and adventures.

Stories like this are really important to me. I was always confused as to why they were not mentioned to me more often in medical settings. But, the field of medicine has its own complications; and talking about them would be another matter. In any case, I always enjoyed reading stories of people who had suffered immense difficulties in life, yet persevered and were able to have good outcomes. Earlier this year, I read the autobiography of a woman named Helen Keller. You might be familiar with her story: as a young child, she had lost both her hearing and sight, and her condition was to remain with her for as long as she lived. But, as the Divine had willed, she was nevertheless able to learn a system of communication from her teacher and lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan. As she grew older, Miss Keller went on to obtain a college degree from a prestigious university; developed a profoundly refined intellect; traveled to many places; and met some extraordinary people. This is but one example, out of many, of how a human spirit can develop and flourish under difficult circumstances.

As a Muslim, I find myself naturally referring to the Qur’an when thinking about these things. The themes of “struggle, perseverance, and victory” are profound; and an Islamic perspective provides us with a variety of understandings as to why these realities exist. Unfortunately, in a book like The Brain That Changes Itself, the reader might not be illuminated as to why, ultimately, certain changes can occur in our minds and bodies. I think that it is because we live during a time in which secularism predominates in our society; and many writers do not subscribe to a worldview that attempts to explain the metaphysical origins of natural phenomena. Rather, they tend to align themselves to a domain which is concerned with what might be “universally” agreed-upon, due to its physically-perceptible and verifiable nature.

When trying to ascertain the foundation of hope and possible change, we as Muslims can reassuringly turn to the Qur’an, and find in it a metaphysical statement whose implications go far beyond the belief that the human brain itself is the ultimate source of healing and improvement; it is the oft-mentioned declaration: “Truly: God has power over all things.” But, I do not wish to diminish either the value or the importance of Norman Doidge’s work. It rather seems to me that, as people of a certain religious background, we have a unique opportunity to introduce a type of spiritual thought and understanding into academic discourse. I know that I myself have greatly benefited from spending time in order to gain a grounding in this tradition; now, whenever I read a book, I find myself able to add a variety of perspectives to the conversation. Alhamdulillah.

Continuing with the preface of The Brain That Changes Itself, the author writes that there have been certain scientists, starting in the late 1960s, who have “made a series of unexpected discoveries. They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each different activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so that it was better suited to the task at hand. If certain ‘parts’ failed, then other parts could sometimes take over … They began to call this fundamental brain property ‘neuroplasticity’ (xiv–xv).

After writing in some detail about the concept of neuroplasticity, the author then provides us with some examples of how this concept works. “[The scientists] showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many ‘circuits’ and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not. One of these scientists even showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior — surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century” (xv).

At the risk of over-quoting the author, I must nevertheless convey the entirety of his next paragraph: “In the course of my travels, I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts. To cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureates who were hotly debating how we must re-think our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing” (xv).

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At this point, I will conclude the first blog post. InshaAllah, I will have more opportunities in the future to continue journaling my thoughts. I’ll also try to continue summarizing and writing about the next few chapters of this book.

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