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Meet Brenda Milner

Marilyn Murray Willison on

If you're like me, you probably experience plenty of days when you feel as if you are simply too old or too tired for whatever happens to be annoying you at the time. After all, we've weathered more than our share of challenges in the past decades, and the idea of lounging on a tropical beach or simply taking an extended break from our normal routine often seems more appealing with every passing birthday.

But all my thoughts about retiring magically evaporated when I read about an amazing woman named Dr. Brenda Milner. At the age of 98, she is still a professor in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University as well as a professor of psychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. This amazing woman currently holds more than 20 honorary degrees from different universities across Canada, Europe and the United States. Dr. Milner may not be a household name, but she is considered by many to be the founder of neuropsychology.

She is best known for discovering the seat of memory in the brain, and she is currently exploring the interaction between the brain's left and right hemispheres. During her 70-year career, she has worked tirelessly to clarify the function of different brain regions by scrupulously testing people with brain lesions.

Part of the reason that Dr. Milner has been able to continue her career for such a long time is she has won a number of awards that include funding for additional research. Her workspace is a 10-minute walk from her home in Montreal, and as a "senior, senior researcher," she only goes into her office three days a week.

Back in 1936, she received a scholarship to attend Newnham College at the University of Cambridge to study mathematics. At the time, she was one of only 400 women admitted to this prestigious school. But when she realized that mathematics would prove too difficult for her, she changed her field of study to psychology. In 1941, after several more years at Cambridge, she met an electrical engineer who was also involved in radar research for the war effort. They married in 1944 and traveled from England to Boston with British "war brides."

They moved to Canada, and she began teaching psychology at the University of Montreal. Over the next several years, she earned her master's degree and two doctorates. She is best known for her major contributions to the understanding of how the frontal lobe functions when it comes to memory processes and organizing information.

 

Back in the 1950s, Dr. Milner changed the way scientists think about brain function and memory formation. She did this by closely observing a 29-year-old Connecticut man who was a patient in search of relief for his epileptic seizures. After surgery, his epilepsy was cured, but he could no longer form new memories. Dr. Milner was able to demonstrate that there are two systems in the brain for processing memory: One (explicit) handles experiences, faces and names, and the other (implicit) handles skills, like driving or playing the piano. This proves that the brain's two halves essentially divide up our mental workload.

It is now commonly accepted that the brain's left hemisphere focuses on language and reasoning while the right is more aesthetic and intellectual. Thanks to Dr. Milner, people who suffer brain injuries today are better able to understand and adapt to the challenges they face. The research conducted by this determined scientist has drastically reversed the number of potentially life-altering neurosurgeries.

Currently, there is a strong push toward bilingual education, and Dr. Milner's research on the neural substrates of unilingual and bilingual speech processes is what probably laid the cornerstone for this movement. The next time I'm tempted to feel sorry for myself because je suis fatigue or estoy cansada, I promise to use my neural pathways to remember the astonishing example of Brenda Milner.

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Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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