Staying Mentally Fit

The "label" reads: Does Not Work!

A few years back, I happened upon a book called The Brain That Changes Itself.  This is a fascinating book that tells the stories of people who, due to serious handicaps in their lives (physically and mentally), experienced the development of new neuro-pathways and overcame great odds in the process.

The book introduced me to terms I had never heard before: neuroplasticity and plasticity of the brain to name a couple.  These two terms refer to the brain’s ability to morph and change.   From the SharpBrains blog site, here’s more details about this amazing ability of the brain:

In addition to genetic factors, the environment in which a person lives, as well as the actions of that person, play a role in plasticity.

Neuroplasticity occurs in the brain:

1 – At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organizes itself.

2 – In case of brain injury: to compensate for lost functions or maximize remaining functions.

3 – Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorized.

Of the events listed above, the one that I am most interested in at the moment is the third one: whenever something new is learned and memorized–in adulthood.  We often hear how amazing the child brain is, how children are amazing little “learning machines.” However, the subject of brain plasticity opens up whole new frontiers.  The idea that our brains actually remain supple (i.e., “plastic”) throughout life is an exciting possibility.  But how to create the environment for healthy change?  What circumstances must be present if we are to provide our brains the right tools for continued growth and health.

In the book that I mentioned above, The Brain That Changes Itself,  I read the following (underscoring is mine):

Middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before.  Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence; we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career.  We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before.  We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills.  Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning.  By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years!

That last statement is an eye-opener: we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.  Imagine that!  If that is true, no wonder we shrivel up mentally long before we shrivel up physically!

When I first read that statement, I initially thought that I was the exception to the rule.  After all, I had started a new career in my late 40’s, so surely I wouldn’t fall into the category of replaying only those skills that I had mastered at a much younger age.  But the fact is, other than learning a few facts, principles and some new terminology, I suppose my new career did fall within the boundaries of stuff that I had done all my adult life.  In fact, to be honest, that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable jumping into something “new.”  I could make use of skills that I had already developed.  It wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch at all.  And therein lies the rub!

From birth, we stretch our tiny little brains to capacity learning all the skills it takes to live–holding a spoon, drinking from a cup, putting on socks, holding a pencil, communicating with words, standing, walking, running, etc., etc., etc.  The list seems never-ending.  Sometime in the 20’s, the learning cycle slows down drastically and, as stated in the quote above, we mostly replay already-mastered skills.  And when that happens, we slowly, slowly begin to “shrivel.”

I don’t want to shrivel, do you?  In fact, there’s a verse in Psalms 92:14 that paints a picture of how I want to age: “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (NIV). That’s what I want!  I want to be fresh and vital. I want to be green, not stale.  That’s the destination; now, how to get there?  How do we continue to stretch our brains even after we have learned how to hold our spoons and drink from cups and walk and run and talk and write?

It boils down to a word: challenge. It’s all about challenging ourselves, our brains.  And the beauty is that you don’t have to go for a PhD to implement this process, you simply have to do things that are a challenge to you!  Did you read, A Technology That Will Save You Time and Make You Wiser?  In that post, I share how to set up a simple RSS icon in your browser so you can quickly subscribe to blog and news feeds that are of interest to you. I conclude by introducing the idea that searching out little tidbits of information like that and implementing them are beneficial in more than one way.  Yes, it would be simpler to have your genius computer-geek friend do it for you, but you would miss the opportunity to search out something you didn’t know, implement it, and then get the joy of a job well done.  It’s simple opportunities like this (figuring out how to do something) that help keep us fresh and green as opposed to dried and shriveled up.

Here are some other recommended ways of exercising your brain and contributing to its overall health (and staying fresh and green):

  • Change it up–your routines, that is.  Take a different route to work or to the store.  Brush your hair with left hand instead of the right.
  • Learn to dance–not the hopping around, free-style kind, but the kind that actually has a pattern to it and requires you to think: Foxtrot, Rumba, Cha Cha, etc. (aka, ballroom dancing).
  • Learn to play a musical instrument.  Again, you don’t have to be a maestro.  It’s all about learning something you didn’t know before and concentrating on it.
  • Learn to speak a new language.  I repeat, it’s about focusing and concentrating on something entirely new to you (as in “foreign”).
  • Become proficient in technology.  I heard somewhere that learning technology (your computer, software, your cell phone, etc.) is akin to learning a new language, so it stretches your brain similarly.  And unlike learning a new language, you can experience the benefits of learning technology almost instantly, as we use the computer much more regularly than we visit a foreign country.

Finally, let me conclude this post with this fun visual of what it “looks like” when we learn something new.  The video is a short 3:15 minutes long.  It will forever change the way you think of your brain!  “How We Learn” video

Just out of curiosity, I’d like to hear if any of you reading this feel that you challenge yourself mentally on a regular basis, or if you fall more in the category of “replaying already-mastered skills.”  If you do challenge yourself, please pass along any helpful suggestions that the rest of us might put into practice, too.

Thanks to Flickr  for the photo.

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