Why ‘Brain-Training’ Works:
New research into brain plasticity has revealed that when we force our brains to master new ideas, learn a new language, or understand a new concept, we create new connections in the brain which can then be used to create other thought-patterns and expand our mental possibilities. Creating new active brain connections can counteract the effect of having lost connections through the build-up of the amyloid protein which is thought to be a cause of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
There are many different activities which create these new brain connections. Going dancing, playing bridge, doing the crossword, learning a new language, and playing online brain training games have all been highlighted as good for the brain.
But Jewish seniors have another option. Learning Talmud(made up of the Gemara and the Mishna, and often used as a term interchangeably with ‘gemara‘) can play an equally effective role in preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in Jewish baby boomers. According to Dr Ben Keene, MRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist in London, UK, “The regular study of gemara in a pair or group provides both social interaction and cognitive exercise. There is evidence that both regular cognitive activity and social engagement are neuro-protective.”
It is now well-known that South Korea encourages their children to learn Talmud in order to sharpen their brains. Their logic, that since Jews are smart, and Jews learn Talmud, therefore learning Talmud will make South Koreans smart too, is still untested. However, if they keep it up into old age, South Korea will probably be very successful at reducing dementia.
4 Ways That Learning Gemara Is Good For Brain Health In Jewish Seniors:
1. Sustaining Mental Effort: The gemara is written as a combination of shorthand and a stream-of-consciousness work, with millions of different, inter-connecting pieces of information encoded within it. Hundreds of commentaries and other Jewish works branch off of the gemara, with references and ideas interwoven within them. To understand gemara requires conscious, sustained mental effort, which is proven to increase brain connections and lower harmful amyloid depositions.
2. Learning a New Language: To learn the gemara/Talmud, one needs to master a new language – Aramaic – and hold it in mind, which is challenging even for Jewish seniors who are well-versed in classical Hebrew. Learning a new language has been shown to be extremely beneficial for preventing cognitive decline.
3. Creating New Neural Pathways: Jewish baby boomers who learn gemara also need to remember several contradictory strands of debate, which exercises both the memory and the brain’s ability to consider two things in relation to each other. The logic and reason that is required to keep track of the (usually unstated) arguments force the brain to create new neural pathways and boost one’s powers of analysis.
4. Boosting Expressiveness & Speed of Thought: The powerful impact that learning Talmud has on pushing off the onset of dementia and sharpening the brain is enhanced by the fact that it is traditionally learned in chavrusa. In chavrusa learning, two people discuss, dissect, debate and really argue with each other in the course of coming to understand the meaning of a text. In the course of chavrusa learning, one’s flexibility of argument is increased as one responds to the other’s suggestions. Having to listen to the other person’s theories, and explain one’s own, stretch the fluency of expression and speed of thought.
So, before you turn to Su Dokus, online brain training games, or the crossword, think about starting – or re-establishing – a chavrusa in gemara. It might just change your mind entirely.
Staje is dedicated to serving active Jewish over-60s. Find out more at Staje.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.