There’s a common misconception that at a certain point in your life your brain cells start dying off and there’s nothing you can do to reverse it. A mistaken belief that your mind ceases to develop once you reach adulthood, and from thereon you’re forced to watch helplessly as the knowledge you’ve accrued and the fine intellect you’ve honed begin to leak through your desperately clutching fingers.
The truth is that your brain never stops growing, and, according to Dr. Monte S. Buchsbaum, Professor of Psychiatry and Radiology at the University of California, San Diego, there’s not that much difference between the brain of a 75 year old and that of a 25 year old.
So, it’s never too late to expand your mind and sharpen your intellect, and even the areas of the brain considered particularly prone to deterioration, like the hippocampus, can be made more resilient through mental stimulation. Here’re just a few of the methods you can use to exercise your brain.
Learning new things
The mere act of learning a new skill can in itself promote brain growth. For example, studies have shown that learning to juggle over the period of a few weeks can increase both grey and white matter in the brain.
But such benefits aren’t unique to juggling. Any brain-challenging activity will do, and even performing routine activities in unfamiliar ways, such as brushing your teeth with your weaker hand, can provide the necessary stimulation.
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The term ‘Neurobics’ refers to a series of brain exercises designed by Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, a professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center. They promote cell growth and strengthen nerve pathways in the brain by encouraging participants to alter their daily routine and utilize their five senses in unconventional ways; for example, by taking a different route to work or getting dressed with their eyes closed.
The idea is to disengage from auto-pilot whilst performing routine activities. By mixing it up we force the brain to remain active, strengthening it in the process.
As Tyrion Lannister (from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series) says, “A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” Reading is not only a way to acquire knowledge, but the actual process of reading itself can also promote brain growth. A study published by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene reveals that reading stimulates both the occipital lobe of the brain, which processes visual information, and the parietal lobe, which is responsible for cognition.
Watching television, on the other hand, causes the brain to go into neutral. Of course, no one’s saying you should quit watching television, but don’t allow it to become a substitute for reading.
Some may dismiss mindfulness as a religious practice, but while it may have its roots in eastern mysticism, there is much scientific evidence to support the belief that meditation can benefit the brain, and many psychologists even incorporate such practices into their treatment.
For example, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, claims that mindfulness has been shown to have positive effects on electrical activity within the brain, and that regular meditation increases one’s resilience to stress, and also provides numerous other psychological and physiological benefits.
Traveling allows you to experience the unfamiliar, and requires you to think on your feet. So, not only do the experiences you gain promote personal growth, but the actual experience of traveling itself can also promote brain growth.
Keeping the mind occupied
Simply ensuring that the brain receives regular stimulation, from playing games and looking up articles on Wikipedia (using the Special: Random feature) to engaging in conversation with friends, will help keep it limber in the same way that physical exercise keeps the body in shape.
For example, a cognitive psychologist in England found that elderly people who regularly played bingo had better memory and hand-eye coordination than those who didn’t. It’s also been shown that keeping the brain active helps to stave off dementia, with one case study finding that people who were more mentally active during middle age were three times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life than their mentally sedentary counterparts.
Physical exercise increases oxygen to the brain and floods the body with endorphins, making it as essential to healthy brain function as mental stimulation. Even low-intensity exercise like walking has been shown to have significant benefits, with senior citizens who walk regularly displaying improved memory, concentration and learning ability.
German novelist Thomas Mann said, “Thoughts come clearly while on walks.” John Adams, one of the founding fathers and the second president of the United States, was known to be an avid walker. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he was able to remain mentally sharp well into his old age.
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