Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson maintains sharp mental edge

Washington field boss exemplifies new science of neuroplasticity

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“In the off season, I have a lot of passions,” Mr. Johnson said.

He has been ever thus. When he played baseball and basketball at Texas A&M in the early 1960s, he wanted to be a veterinarian and studied oceanography; at Trinity University in San Antonio, he studied home building before settling on a mathematics degree.

While playing for the Orioles, Mr. Johnson designed and built his first house. He also took a computer course at Johns Hopkins University.

“That was when they had the old 360 IBM and you had to use the card punch to get it to work,” Mr. Johnson said. “I wrote programs in Fortran and Cobol. One of my famous programs was called ‘Optimize Your Lineup.’ “

Mr. Johnson’s moneyball-before-“Moneyball” lineup-optimizing program — and mindset — informed much of his later managing career, even if it didn’t go over too well with his Orioles teammates.

In one memorable instance, Mr. Johnson informed struggling Baltimore pitcher Dave McNally that he was in an “unfavorable chance deviation” — in other words, he should stop trying to aim for the corners of the strike zone and instead throw down the middle, the better to hit the corners.

From that moment on, Mr. Johnson’s nickname with the Orioles was “Dum-Dum.”

“I’ve always been interested in learning different things and in different challenges,” Mr. Johnson said. “When you’re constantly studying and feeding the inquisitive part of your brain, it keeps your mind flexible.”

Biologically speaking, Mr. Johnson is right: Nothing boosts the mind quite like new learning. Far from structurally static — akin to the microchips in a smart phone — the brain is ever-changing and evolving at the microscopic level, with billions of neurons constantly forming new circuits and connections that impact cognition, memory and behavior.

This, in essence, is neuroplasticity.

“The general idea is that the brain is like a muscle,” said John H. Byrne, chairman of the department of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School. “You have to exercise it. If you don’t, it starts to weaken. Use it or lose it. This is backed up by lots of data.”

When Washington-based neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas worked in brain-injury and stroke rehabilitation two decades ago, scientists thought the adult brain could not grow new neurons and that mental capacity invariably decreased with time.

“It turns out that is actually not the case,” Ms. Lucas said. “If you ask something of your brain, it will respond by beefing up the neural pathways associated with that. Novel experiences activate new neuronal growth and new synaptic connections so that your brain is faster and better at new things.”

Cases in point? A classic study of London taxicab drivers found that the areas of their brains dealing with spatial memory and navigation were highly developed compared to those of nondrivers. A University of California, Berkeley, study found that intensive LSAT study increased connections between the parts of the brain associated with reasoning and thinking. A Harvard University study found that longtime meditators had less age-related shrinkage of the brain’s outer layer — associated with executive function — than both older and younger people who did not meditate.

“Our brains have the capacity to make changes in response to what we experience.” Ms. Lucas said.

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