Origami, the Japanese word for paper folding, is known as the art of transforming paper into beautiful objects.
But this ancient art form is also being used in clinical therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other neurological conditions, according to BiJian Fan, Ph.D., a retired biotech engineer and renowned paper artist who teaches Origami Memory Gymnastics.
His class — titled OMG — takes place at the Agoura Hills Recreation and Event Center. It is offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of California State University, Channel Islands.
“Origami art has been advocated by neuroscientists to maintain brain fitness and make memories stick,” said Fan of Camarillo, who once worked at Amgen in Thousand Oaks. The self-taught artist is known for his intricate paper sculptures, and first discovered the craft of origami from his grandmother while growing up in Beijing, China. Fan later discovered that the process of contemplating the principles of origami, as well as the physical act of transforming paper into art, helps maintain mental fitness.
Based on emerging research, reading aloud, hand writing and arithmetic are three simple activities that can improve seniors’ cognition because these activities raise blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, Fan said. Other activities, such as origami, are also found to activate the prefrontal cortex.
“OMG was developed based on the research, to integrate origami art and arithmetic in a mental fitness program,” Fan said. “It is active, fun and social.”
Mental engagement through education is also a powerful way to mitigate dementia risk, Fan noted. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute — also known as OLLI — is a nationwide program that brings the excitement of college learning to local seniors.
With OLLI classes, there’s no homework or tests — rather, it’s all about the joy of learning, he said.
“The bonus of OLLI classes is socialization,” said Fan, noting research has shown that seniors who socialize are 55 percent less likely to develop dementia. “Attending an OLLI class is a great way to develop a network of friends and avoid isolation. Our oldest OLLI student is 102 years old.”
Shoshana Brower, 71, recently enrolled in Fan’s OMG class. “I was interested in the possibility that doing origami can be helpful for delaying dementia,” said Brower, of Westlake Village.
“It does stimulate your brain and it’s also challenging because I don’t always get it immediately,” Brower said. “Also, the creative part is fun. Creating something new and different does stimulate that critical thinking.”
The OMG class is structured in two parts: Half of the class is dedicated to instruction and discussing research, while the other half involves transforming paper into objects.
Susie Malone, 70, learned about OMG when she participated in an event called A Taste of OLLI, which offers free samplings of classes to showcase everything OLLI has to offer.
“Each week is a different instructor with a different subject, and instructors often do this to promote a class,” said Malone of Thousand Oaks. “So I had a one-day session with BJ and I was blown away. He’s so talented and such a good teacher, I almost didn’t care what he was teaching.”
The first time Malone attended OMG, Fan instructed each student in the class to make a nametag by folding paper into quarters.
“Then we used all the nametags to build a tower,” Malone recalled.
Malone also appreciates the research Fan brings to the classroom.
“He is always bringing in a new aspect of memory and taking care of our brains, so it’s not just origami,” Malone said. “The point BJ has made all along is that your brain is like a bank, and the more you learn, the more reserve you have against degeneration. The more you use it, the more you can learn.”
Origami Memory Gymnastics classes run March 27-April 17 at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. For more information, call 437-2748 or visit http://ext.csuci.edu/community-ed/osher/.