Having just finished the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, I wanted to share with you some of the interesting ideas that were being explored. Some I have been exposed to over the years of study but they were told in another light that gave a sense of clarity to them. All were backed up in the book by research.
Firstly I want to discuss what a “plastic” brain is. Plasticity simply means that it is mouldable and can change. For many years it was believed that the brain was like an electrical machine that could not change after the critical period (period from birth to approximately eight years of age). We now know that this is not the case and our brains are plastic and can have changes in a positive way even into our 80s and 90s. Here are a few simple ways from the book to help the brain stay active and reduce age-related cognitive decline.
- Learn a new task. And that does not mean practicing a task you already know how to do. This means a completely new task such as a musical instrument, a language, a hobby or a new sport. Once we hit middle age we tend to stop learning new tasks. We change jobs less often, we are skilled in our careers, we rarely participate in tasks that focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger.
- The task must be something that requires full attention and the desire to learn, so make it something you have always wanted to learn or are really interested in. When we are really focused and have the desire to learn our brain releases chemicals from the nucleus basalis that assist with plasticity.
- Walk as much as you can with your shoes off and on all different terrain to keep up the sensory feedback from your feet. As we age this declines and wearing shoes on our feet all the time for decades does not help either. Doidge suggests this can lead to improved balance and reduced falls.
As a final point you need to use it or you loose it! As age expectancy and our body’s lifespan increases to well into our 80s we need extend our mental lifespan to match it.