To stimulate the brain is to challenge it and/or to learn new things. Think in terms of the adage, “Use it or lose it.” I read the following in The Brain That Changes Itself (by Norman Doidge) a few years back:
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!
I was highly impacted by these statements because I realized that, at that time, it represented who I was! I wasn’t really learning anything new. I was simply applying over and over again the knowledge that I had learned many years ago. Since that revelation, I have become very conscientious about changing my ways. And that is what this post is about: ways to stimulate the brain.
The brain is the command center for the rest of the body, so it is imperative that we keep it in good working order. And, although I may sound like a broken record, it bears repeating that this is not just a subject for “old people.” Research suggests that long before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s are visible, the brain has already started showing signs—up to thirty years before! Furthermore, there are good habits that can be developed by the young and middle-aged that can help prevent Alzheimer’s. I am writing about five of these good habits this week:
Did you know when we learn something new, the hippocampus in the brain glows momentarily (psychologists call this the “novelty response”)? And it doesn’t have to be a huge learning experience, either. Something as simple as learning a new word can do the trick. The goal is to keep searching out new things (remember “holy curiosity”?)! It takes commitment to do this. In another post, I wrote, “…mental fitness is about being alert and agile and curious rather than lethargic and lazy.” When there is no teacher or boss pushing us, we have to assume responsibility to give assignments to ourselves! “Assignments” could be things like learning a new word everyday (and also implementing it into your conversation in the correct context), reading daily (and not the same genre all the time; remember “novelty,” newness), surfing the Internet for answers to questions that intrigue you, learning a new card game, learning a new software program, learning a new dance step, learning to play a musical instrument, etc., etc., etc. The main thing is just learning.
Because it is new and challenging, learning a second (or third or fourth) language is one serious way to stimulate the brain. Besides opening up the potential to communicate with an entirely new segment of humanity, another language “builds a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age. Some research suggests that people who speak a second language may have enhanced defenses against the onset of dementia and delay Alzheimer’s disease by an average of four years. The ability to speak more than one language also may help protect memory.”*
Writing may be another method of bulking up the brain’s resistance to Alzheimer’s. The famous Nun Study that started in 1986 links literacy and expressiveness in youth to resistance to Alzheimer’s in old age.** Regardless of when you start, becoming more articulate and expressive can only be good for you. I have to admit that writing for this blog is a new, challenging, stretching and brain-fattening experiment for me. I know it is good for me! Though you may not be interested in blogging, you might consider journaling or writing your memoirs.
There are other less-obvious ways to stimulate and benefit your brain (and improve coordination) including learning ballroom dancing, playing tennis, jigsaw puzzles, and playing table tennis (ping pong). Building your brain is not just business, it is also fun!
Do you regularly stimulate your brain? Or have you gotten into a mental rut? Do you have something that you can add to the list of ideas in this post? Please leave a comment. I enjoy hearing from you!