Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How You Can Make Your Brain Smarter Every Day


Your brain — every brain — is a work in progress. It is “plastic.” 

From the day we’re born to the day we die, it continuously revises and remodels, improving or slowly declining, as a function of how we use it. If a brain is exercised properly, anyone can grow intelligence, at any age, and potentially by a lot. Or you can just let your brain idle — and watch it slowly, inexorably, go to seed like a sedentary body.

Most older brains, by the way, are neglected. They are therefore slower and less accurate, and do a poorer job recording useful information and controlling their owners’ actions. The common belief, not so many years ago, was that we older folk were just stuck with these declining faculties. Again, we now know this is simply not true. ...

How We Do It, Every Day

The key is to get “brain exercise” in the right form. We know that we can sustain or even rejuvenate the brain’s accuracy, reliability and problem-solving ability. Most people in midlife and beyond can recover the brain power and adaptive intelligence of those 10, 20 or 30 years younger. ...

My wife, Diane, and I have adjusted our own lives based on our knowledge of how lifestyle impacts brain health, so we can have lively brains that last as long as our physical bodies. What do we do?

  • First, we both spend time at an Internet “brain gym.” AARP and BrainHQ both provide programs scientifically demonstrated to grow or recover age-affected brain power. 
    • Most days, I spend 20 to 30 minutes at these exercises on my computer or iPad, because I know this is by far the most efficient way to sustain my neurological health. J
    • ust as with exercise at a fitness center, I can work on the computer to improve specific abilities I would struggle to engage as effectively through my everyday activities.

  • I also begin every morning with a brisk 30- to 60-minute walk. 
    • It helps me gain the physical and neurological benefits of walking, but in the process, I also intensely exercise my brain by reconstructing in rich detail, in my mind and memory, the fascinating landscape that I live in. 
    • I pay attention, during these walks and throughout my day, to the feelings of my movements and actions. My mantra: Brainless exercise is a lost opportunity for improvement.
    • As I walk, I try to capture the wonders that come from child-like observation: the feel, the nuances of smell, the visual beauty and detail, the complex and simple sounds, the surprises and the remarkable variation in all of the wondrous things out there in the world. 
Throughout my day, I try to really listen in conversation; to work hard to understand the music I hear on my radio or at the symphony; to feel my body rise up from that chair or take that next step up the stairs; and in a hundred other ways, to drink in the details of what is actually happening around me. ...

Later in the day, I find time to reconstruct my morning walk or other activities in my mind, replaying them forward and backward. I have become a master of the world that I live in....

The areas of the brain that control learning and memory require regular exercise. Diane and I engage in a continuous schedule of new learning. I don’t mean just reading new books or acquiring new information through other media. Learning has to be translated into acquiring fundamentally new skills and abilities. We accomplish this by continually developing challenging new avocations and activities. A second mantra: Nothing changes positively in your brain unless it matters to you.

  • This explains why I have a flower garden, a vegetable garden, an orchard, a vineyard, beehives, a wood shop, a potter’s wheel and a kiln — 
  • and can often be found making wine, jam, mustard, bowls, sculptures, cabinets, spaghetti sauce or a kite. 
  • It explains the time I devote to ping pong, jigsaw puzzles, Boggle or catch, where fast reactions, adaptive memory and working memory come into play. In every case, I take such activities seriously. ... The key is continuous challenge.

How Your Social Life Boosts Your Brain

Diane and I also know that every brain needs a regular dose of social exercise. We try to make our home a place people are attracted to, because we know that social interaction is brain food for everybody. We try to be a source of fun and joy in the world, because passing on good spirits is just as rewarding for us and our brains as receiving those precious gifts. The brain machinery involved controls new learning, so a regular dose of positive surprises enables you to grow your brain power. ...

What Could Hold You Back

...Limit the time you spend in front of TV, computer and smartphone screens. Most of us waste far too much time passively receiving information from screens without translating what we see, hear or feel into any useful action. Modern tools allow us to operate without making very much use of our brains. GPS is wonderful, but not as a crutch that keeps you from tracking what you can find in the world you live in. ....

Full text from Michael Merzenich, Ph.D, writing at Forbes