The following article recently appeared on Forbes.com
“Smarter Brains,” which reports on the latest research and discoveries in neuroscience and how we can apply them to our daily lives to boost our brain power at any age, airs on PBS stations nationwide in August. (Check local listings.) Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., is one of the neuroscientists featured in the special.
If you’re old enough, you may remember a time, maybe back in your childhood, when someone measured your intelligence and assigned a number to it. I suspect that you have been either proud of that “IQ,” or perhaps a little bit chagrined about it, from that day to this. The general belief back then was that intelligence was a genetic endowment, along with eye color or a propensity for baldness.
We now know this is simply not true. 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. Your brain can be better, stronger, smarter and safer, starting now.
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. As a scientist who has studied brain plasticity and produced neuroplasticity-based tools to help people overcome neurological maladies, I am often asked how we can incorporate the science into our everyday lives and what activities we should engage in to grow brain power.
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. Just 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.
It’s no idle pursuit. My brain power depends on my retained mastery of analyzing in detail what’s happening in my world and in my mind and body. I must continue to practice to retain my constructive and analytic powers. The goal is to be a master of my environment. My brain was designed to provide me with that power.
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. You can, too.
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. My performance and progressive improvements matter to me. 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.
While you work to grow or restore your brain power, it is also important to sustain an interesting you. You have to continue to read, listen and learn in conventional ways to gather information about what’s happening in our world. It’s not just about keeping in touch. It’s about being better informed and growing as a person that other people find worthwhile. A stronger, more reliable brain, steadily fed fresh information, is bound to make you smarter and more interesting.
What Could Hold You Back
Finally, it’s important to consider what you should not be doing quite so much. 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. Your Facebook contacts may be terrific, but an actual visit and hug trumps a post every time. We can’t put our brains on the sidelines. They need to be in the game, every day.
Each one of us has the ability to enrich our life and grow our brain power. I strongly encourage you to consider changing your own life, in these and other ways. Take this subject seriously and your brain will thank you!
Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at University of California, San Francisco and is co-founder and chief scientific officer of Posit Science. His latest book, Soft-Wired, focuses on how the new science of neuroplasticity should change how we think.
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