While most folks nowadays are wising up to the benefits of physical fitness, these same people are often ignorant of the necessity of mental fitness. Many presume that their brains will perform on demand so long as they don’t get some mind-altering disease or a brain injury. The brain, however, is like the physical body in that it operates according to the “use it or lose it” principle. As we put demand upon it, we increase its capacity. No demand, and the brain literally begins to shrink (it’s true that the brain gets larger with more intelligence). What we want to strive for, then, is a big, fat brain.
I recently read that London cabdrivers are required to memorize all the streets in London—all 25,000 of them! Needless to say, this is no small task; it takes most of them three or four years to complete. Researchers followed a group of these driver trainees, scanning their brains before and after the four-year period. What they discovered is that those trainees who completed the process (many dropped out) of memorizing all the streets and landmarks had literally increased the volume of their brains (they had fat brains). Those that dropped out had no change in their brain. The successful cabbies had restructured their brains.
The point of this study (and many others) is that we can indeed alter the structure of our brains. (And by the way, this is a relatively new finding. In the not-so-recent past—during my lifetime—scientists did not believe the brain could be altered by anything that we did externally.)
What all this means to us is that there are steps we can take NOW to preserve AND IMPROVE the capabilities of our brains (aka, brain fitness). In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote, “Begin with the end in mind.” The point is to look ahead into your future and envision who you want to be, and begin NOW to develop into that person (my summary; not Covey’s). So in the context of mental fitness, I look ahead into my future and say that I want to be sharp and “with it” and witty as an elderly person; I want to be the “wise old lady” that young whippersnappers want to be around! If that vision is genuine, then I have to start now to develop that wise old lady, to give her the building blocks she needs to become wise(r), witty and with it. Or maybe a more provocative method would be to look at someone who has lost their mental capabilities and realize that—without purposeful, directed action—”there, too, but for the grace of God go I.”
So what are the “purposeful, directed” actions we can take? You might be surprised to learn that some of the best activities for the brain are also activities that are good for the body. We are, after all, integrated beings. In the book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, by Dr. Daniel G. Amen writes at length about specific things to do to build a strong, healthy brain (you can read more about the book, some of the concepts and the author at http://www.amenclinics.net/). But for now, here’s a short list:
- Aerobic exercise
- Eat healthy
- Stress management
- Stimulate the brain (brain games)
- Have a wide social network
To me, mental fitness is about being alert and agile and curious rather than lethargic and lazy. I think of the Scripture in Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” I think God likes it when we are hungry for knowledge, when we’re searching out. I call this “holy curiosity.”
In my next few posts here at My Pleasant Places, I will write more about this subject. The main thing I wanted to stress in this post was the need to be proactive and to be conscious of the necessity to strengthen our brain—and to provoke you to “holy curiosity.” And just in case you are thinking you are too young to be concerned with this subject, did you know that the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia start 30—maybe even 50—years before there are visible symptoms? That means when a person is diagnosed at 59, their brain was already changing at 30. But some researchers believe that more than half of Alzheimer’s cases could potentially be prevented through lifestyle changes. So NOW is actually the optimal time for young adults to begin thinking about this subject.
In the list above, I referenced “Brain Games.” Generally, we think of crossword puzzles and Sudoku. While these are fun and beneficial to an extent, these kinds of mental exercises, if played regularly, actually become over-learned tasks (thus, defeating the purpose of learning something new and stretching the brain into new “frontiers”). They don’t force the brain to operate in new ways. The right kind of cognitive training introduces novel tasks that force the brain to process information in new ways. Enter the more sophisticated type of brain games, such as those offered by Lumosity. I stumbled across Lumosity last year, and I’ve been “playing” ever since.
Do you give much thought to brain fitness? Do you have any secrets for fattening up your brain? Please comment!