On changing our tunes

By James E. Mattson | 08/20/2015

Time to compile a new playlist?

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It has been known for years that songbirds continually practice their tunes, refining them for best effect and to improve consistency. Learning from their fathers by trial and error, young male zebra finches, native to Australia, spend their lives first learning to emulate their fathers’ mating songs and then perfecting them. Now, researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have discovered the neurological mechanism that could account for the finch’s ability to refine and alter its song, and the discovery could have significant implications for treating human neurological conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to obsessive disorders.
 
JEM_ID_embed_SFWDuring two decades of research, the late Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology at UCSF, had established the birdsong system as a model for the basal ganglia’s role in humans—its function in language, fine motor learning, and psychiatric disease. She found, for example, that when output of the songbird’s equivalent of the basal ganglia is blocked in young birds, they never develop a mature song, and when it’s blocked in adult birds, they lose their ability to maintain and tweak their tunes—to wing it, so to speak.
 
Another fascinating thing Doupe discovered: A bird’s “creativity engine” is more active when it practices its songs alone. It injects more variables—including new notes—into its trills. Not unlike singing in the shower, I presume. Enter a female, however, and creativity shuts down in favor of “the best, most tried-and-true version” of the bird’s song.
 
Makes sense to me. When one’s romantic life is on the line, it’s probably best to stick to what one knows best, but researchers weren’t willing to just accept that assumption at beak value. They wanted to know why and how. In other words, they wanted evidence to explain this birdly practice. Now, they think they’ve found it, and the birdsong research world is all atwitter.
 
Anyway, it got me to thinking, which is a good thing. It’s so easy to get into ruts, to respond to life’s events and vicissitudes with the same old tunes—the same timeworn playlist of kneejerk reactions, often negative—based on untested assumptions we adopted years ago. Euripides said, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” I have no idea what Euri was thinking when he said, “Answer nothing,” but two out of three isn’t bad. (Maybe President Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, demonstrated understanding of the latter when he was asked what effect World War I would have on civilization. His response? “I cannot answer that question because I have no facts on which to base an opinion.” Since when did lack of facts have anything to do with not expressing an opinion?)
 
Charles Kettering, inventor, engineer, and head of General Motors from 1920 to 1947, observed, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” Florence Nightingale did not respond to conditions she observed in the mid-19th century with the same old song and dance that others performed. Instead, she instituted important social reforms, found creative ways to express statistical data, and, based on what she observed, improved health care through evidence-based practice.
 
Changing kneejerk, reactive responses to proactive, problem-solving ones isn’t easy because the former are so ingrained and convenient. The rewards for doing so can be significant, though, as Michael LaFerney, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, psychiatric clinical nurse specialist and RNL columnist, points out in “How NOT to respond to an inspection.”
 
Changing our tunes and creating new playlists in which we respond proactively rather than from habitapplies to far more than nursing, though. Diane Sieg, RN, CYT, CSP, mindfulness coach and author of STOP Living Life Like an Emergency, observes in a recent RNL article: "Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. It gives us the space to lead by responding rather than immediately reacting."And that’s a tune we can all learn. 

James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.
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