Having touched on diet and exercise which form the foundation of brain care, I’ll move on to various kinds of mental stimulation which can preserve and enhance our brains. For years, we’ve been hearing about Sudoku and crossword puzzles and simply reading, all of which can be helpful. These activities, especially reading, are encouraged for many reasons. Reading can take us so many places and teach us so many things and increase our joy in so many ways that I can’t advocate it enough. However, with regard to stimulating the growth of new brain cells and strengthening old ones, most of our reading is analogous to walking. It’s definitely helpful but more challenging or novel forms of mental exercise may be even better.
Experts in neuroscience and brain training emphasize three factors which help to make meaningful changes in the brain: novelty, challenge and variety. Novelty involves doing or experiencing something brand new. Would watching lots of new television shows be included here? Unfortunately for many, television has been shown to be a negative influence on brain health. It tends to be engaged in passively requiring very little thought or attention and keeps many of us on the couch when we should be doing something active. On the other hand, going out to movies or plays can be stimulating. My wife and I have had season tickets to the Clarence Brown theatre for years and have both enjoyed the performances and been broadened in many ways. Plays often provide an intellectual, philosophical or emotional challenge. For example, I’ll never forget the experience of attending plays like “The Crucible”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” or recently “The Whipping Man”. Another great way to stimulate our brains is travel. By traveling, we can continually be exposed to new places, experiences and cultures combined with lots of walking or other physical activity. Walking around in a big city like New York is a veritable feast of new sights, smells, tastes and sounds but one must be paying attention and taking it in actively or most of the benefit (and pleasure) will be missed. Closer to home you could go shopping at a farmer’s market rather than the grocery store for a novel experience. This allows you to purchase fresh local produce from those who grew it and learn from them. You can hear their stories and perhaps get recipes or tips for preparation.
A great way to pursue challenge and variety is to engage in activities which require vigorous effort. Living right next to the Smoky Mountains, it’s a shame to miss the many beautiful trails and there are challenge levels for most anyone. You desire an even greater challenge? Try backcountry camping. (after gaining competence in the required skills of course 🙂 Gardening is wonderful in many ways from participating in God’s creative work to gaining all the knowledge required for successful growing to producing a healthy product which is all the more enjoyable knowing that you planted, fertilized, watered, watched it grow and harvested it! My son is involved in an urban gardening project in which he is learning all of these wonderful things and also having the privilege of relating to and serving those in need. A final example would be to take an active vacation such as a New England bicycle tour. Again, in all of these activities one must be actively engaged with all senses in order to attain the greatest benefit. I will always be grateful to the church choir director of my youth, Mr. Mullins, for continually urging us to enjoy and be thankful for creation. He would always ask if we heard the birds or noticed the blue sky or paid attention to the spring flowers – gifts for everyone to enjoy.
We should always seek variety and novelty but should also find true passion in a few things. When we are passionate about something, we get up in the morning thinking about it and want to learn about it constantly. For example, I have a passion for teaching about wellness which leads me to learn everything I can and continually think about new ways to convey ideas and help people develop new habits for lifelong healthy behavior. I’m always on the lookout for new books, scientific studies, conferences or any other venue for learning something new which we can incorporate into our programs in order to help those we serve lead healthier lives. This kind of passion allows us to enhance our brains without even consciously thinking about it. You should consider the activities I’ve mentioned like hiking, gardening or travel or anything else that is interesting to you and consider cultivating a passion. Brain training can be pursued as a discipline much like a daily jog but it can also bring a tremendous amount of joy if you take something you are interested in and stir it up into a passion.
There are so many worthy activities that I have not mentioned. For example, we’re learning more about video games. A strategy game called Rise of Nations has been demonstrated to enhance working memory and reasoning ability. And I haven’t even mentioned one of my favorite activities, visiting art museums…………But rather than ramble on, I’ll leave you to do some research and apply some deep thought toward finding an activity which suits your interests or brain training goals.