Saturday, January 2, 2010

Keep Your Brain Young

What are you doing to keep your brain young? It may be as easy as saying yes.

More and more it seems that people I know in their 40's, 50's and beyond get into habitual living and activity ruts. They blame it on their bodies (stiff, sore, too hard, etc) or they say it is not fun, or it is too scary - they might get hurt. It used to really drive me nuts and now I'm getting better at living and let live. But, it got me to thinking why the impulse to try new activities is always there for me and I get restless with the same old, same old.

Maybe my brain just wants the exercise and is prodding me on to do new things. New activities stimulate our brain and help it continue to develop even into middle age and later.
As it happens, yes. While it’s tempting to focus on the flaws in older brains, that inducement overlooks how capable they’ve become. Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.

Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.

One explanation for how this occurs comes from Deborah M. Burke, a professor of psychology at Pomona College in California. Dr. Burke has done research on “tots,” those tip-of-the-tongue times when you know something but can’t quite call it to mind. Dr. Burke’s research shows that such incidents increase in part because neural connections, which receive, process and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age.

So, listen to those urges that say to try something new like kayaking, learning Arabic, ski racing, or cooking octopus Korean style. Don't be afraid to talk with and actually try to understand your stupid right-wing or left-wing friend.
The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them.

“The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

When I have gone off into unknown fields and learned more about something previously off my radar it seems to feel good in the way your body feels after a hard workout. You may not have enjoyed that workout but a couple days later the now stronger or more elastic muscles feel better.

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”

Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”

Dr. Mezirow developed this concept 30 years ago after he studied women who had gone back to school. The women took this bold step only after having many conversations that helped them “challenge their own ingrained perceptions of that time when women could not do what men could do.”

Such new discovery, Dr. Mezirow says, is the “essential thing in adult learning.”

“As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically,” he says. “This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp.”

Next time someone asks you to do something that immediately makes you want to recoil, hit them, or tell them "hell no", that may mean the suggested activity is just the ticket to help your brain continue to be healthy and strong. If you are a vegetarian, eat that pulled pork sandwich. The cowboys in the crowd could take up ball room dancing and eating sushi. Have fun with this one.

1 comment:

Jeannie said...

I really enjoyed reading this article/blog because of its significance to our lives! This validated our active daily lives of learning about sherd analysis and archaeology, keeping active by hiking on our surveys, riding bikes on a daily basis and running. Not having a TV also supports good brain health by reading everyday particularly non-fiction books which demand special attention so that I can comprehend the subject matter. Especially as I have seen my father declining with Alzheimer's perhaps his onset was due to the fact that my mother did everything for him once he retired and although he was very active in his earlier years he relied on golf carts to play golf and not exercise by walking as much as he should.
Learning must be a lifetime of endeavor in whatever interests a person and to keep active even learning new recipes!