Brain Health Pillar #3: Learning
Ever wonder why your nine-year-old nephew can download a new app faster than his grandfather?
It is NOT because Grandpa is too old to understand technology. And it’s NOT because Grandpa’s stuck with a shrinking brain he can’t do anything about.
The fact is, our brain is designed to keep growing new brain cells at any age.
And the best news is: Re-growing your brain and memory is a fun, natural process you’ve already done before. It just takes a little more dedication as we get older.
We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about what causes brain shrinkage and memory loss in the first place…
As we get older, most of us fall prey to one sneaky thing that DRAMATICALLY shrinks our brain: We simply stop using it as much.
We stop learning, develop fixed habits, and tend to stick to what we already know…. over and over again.
But just like any part of your body, your brain will literally shrink when you stop using it— particularly in the hippocampus, which is the memory section of the brain.
And when your brain is shrinking, any learning or memory recall is simply going to be harder.
However with practice, any person— young or old—can learn and master any new task (including new technologies!).
Why is this true?
Take a look at how you’ve used your brain over the course of your life:
If you’re like most people, you probably went to school for your first 18 – 24 years, and then got a few jobs and started a career. Maybe you even traveled the world for a bit. This means you likely spent your first 30 or so years constantly learning something new— all day, every day; in school, in the world, and in the workplace.
Your learning curve was a straight upward arrow.
And, if you’re like a most people, you probably started to slow down somewhere in your 30s and 40s, as you settled down and developed habits that made life easier.
Maybe you got comfortable in your career, had a family and fell into a regular routine, or just put life on cruise control— without the constant challenge of new assignments.
So what does this mean?
Your learning curve flattened out, and life became a string of habits.
The fact is, by the time most of us reach our 50s and 60s, our learning curve has completely flatlined.
Let me be clear: This is SHRINKING YOUR BRAIN!
If you want a strong memory and faster learning—aka: good brain health—the simple key is to keep learning and challenging yourself throughout your whole life.
We’ve all heard of that 90-year-old “super human” who is still whistling his way to work every day and walking around with the of spirit and vigor of a 30-year old.
Why is this? Are some people just lucky— or does learning actually grow your brain and keep you young?
The answer is:
No matter how old you are, you are 100% capable of re-growing your brain cells and improving memory— and we now have the science to back it.
When you’re learning something new, you are literally and physically re-shaping the part of your brain responsible for that particular mental task. Even more, studies have shown that the actively growing parts of your brain have stronger communication with other parts of your brain.
For example, think of a pianist who practices for hours each day. Brain scans show that these piano players have a much larger cortex— i.e.: a bigger brain.
Any form of learning increases the number of connections in your brain, improves blood flow and creates more of a chemical called BDNF– a chemical critical to the survival of new brain cells AND in storing memories.
And the long term effects are even more dramatic: Studies also show that intensive learning not only causes your hippocampus—your memory center—to grow while you are learning, but it also continues to grow after you complete the learning activity.
So the more you learn, the faster your brain health continues to improve.
More Learning –> Better Memory –> Happier Life
And— the story around learning gets even better! Actively learning new things throughout life can help stave off late-life dementia & Alzheimer ’s disease.
One of my favorite studies (and a program I love to promote for all my elderly customers) is a program called Experience Corps by AARP. I highly recommend this volunteer program to anyone over the age of 55.
This program was launched in 1996 by John Hopkins University, where they matched young kids with elderly volunteers who committed 15 hours / week to working with these kids as tutors and mentors.
Not only did the volunteers experience increased physical activity from working with the kids, they also got the deep satisfaction of seeing their lifetime of knowledge help others.
So what happened?
The third graders who participated consistently started getting significantly higher grades, and had fewer behavior problems. As for the seniors, well one participant put it best:
“This removed the cobwebs from my brain!”
And the test results proved it. The elderly volunteers saw as high as a 51% increase in executive function and memory… after just six months!
It was a WIN-WIN from every side.
If you’re interested, you can find out more about the program here:
Lesson learned: Use it and you won’t lose it.
But— one important note on brain health:
While practicing the same activity over and over (like a piano player) can grow and enhance certain parts of your brain, is is also CRITICAL to regularly cross-train your brain with new and different activities.
You see, new information and memories get etched more deeply in our brains when we do things that challenge us outside of our routine.
And the more memories we create, the better memory we have.
Evolutionarily, this makes sense. When we only had our senses to depend on for survival, our brains filtered out information that wasn’t important to life or death situations, such as noticing a bird in the sky.
But if we saw something unusual, like a dark shadow lurking in the bushes, we would focus more attention to that area, our brain would fire a fear alarm, and that memory would get stored as a potential threat.
That fear cements a shadow—or memory—in our brain, that causes us to take what might be life-saving action.
Similarly, any emotion attached to an experience will make the memory stick better. A good example of this is how you’ll remember the lyrics to a melancholy song you love more easily than say, a telephone number.
Bottom line is, any emotion or challenge will help with cognition and make the memory—the lesson learned—stick around for the long term. Without those triggers, you might as well be seeing another bird in the sky.
So a little memory trick you can use anytime is to bring some emotion or feeling to the experience.
Now, what if it has been a while since you challenged your cognition or learned something new?
Good news: It’s never too late to start!
We now know we are designed with the plasticity to re-grow new brain cells at any age.
And don’t worry— You’re not alone if you find it harder to learn or read new things than before.
For one thing, there is so much competing for our attention in these days of the information age. Even the news has an extra news stream at the bottom of the screen.
With all this information overload, we’ve become experts at skimming. Just like the bird example, it’s the only way we can filter this sea of information to decide what’s important to focus on, and what to ignore.
The unfortunate result is that our focus and recall start to diminish as we tune things out, which means we’re using less of our brains on a regular basis… and by now you know what that means:
Your brain is shrinking!
This is very alarming of course, but simply one more reason to get your brain back in the game, by learning something new every day.
Cross-Train Your Brain: How does it work?
Crosswords and similar games are a good place to start… unless you’ve been doing them for years, in which case it’s time to try something new.
A fun, easy way to get going is to make a list of things you’ve always wanted to do in life, and keep it somewhere you will see every day.
Then starting TODAY, pick one activity you’ve always wanted to do, and go for it.
Ideally, pick something that involves multiple senses, like using your hands as along with something that involves mental activity, such as mathematics, organization, attention, etc.
You might try building a model airplane if you love airplanes, trying out a new musical instrument, studying a new language you’ve always wanted to speak… ANYTHING!
The best part is, committing to constant learning not only dramatically improves your memory and cognition; it is the natural path to living your fullest and happiest life.
How To Start:
First and foremost, start off by testing your memory so you have a baseline to see (and enjoy!) your progress. I recommend taking a few fun tests before starting your memory improvement practice, and then taking them again at the 4, 8 and 12-week mark.
Here are some of my favorite tests to pick from:
Note: For best results, do three runs of these tests to start with. Keep track of your total score and Reaction Time, Accuracy and Conc Level, by pressing the “Detailed Results” button.
Now, you’re ready to start challenging yourself— and have fun growing new brain cells every day.
Here’s how to start, based on where you’re at now.
Step 1: If you haven’t really “challenged” your brain in a while…
Start by picking up a few easy crosswords or a new book on a subject you’ve been interested to know more about.
Start simple: For the first week, dedicate just 10 minutes a day of focused attention on your new brain challenge. Then, add 10 minutes of focus time each week over the next three weeks. So by the end of four weeks, you’ll be spending 40 minutes a day on focused learning— aka: 40 minutes of literally re-growing your brain! Next, move onto Step 2.
Step 2: If you’re already a semi-active learner…
You’re ready to take it to the next level. Pick up a high-level book from your school days on a subject you liked. Or get out there and try something fun and new that trains your mental and physical coordination, like a dance class or kayaking.
If you have physical restrictions, consider volunteering with a program like Experience Corps, which I mentioned above.
Trust me: It works! When you’re actively challenging your brain every day, you should start seeing noticeably better memory and cognition. Once your cobwebs are cleared, move onto Step 3.
Step 3: If you are already challenging yourself or consider yourself an avid learner…
It’s time to step up your game. Pick up a book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. At my lowest point in life, this was the book I used to really jump-start my brain. Not only is it a fun read, it will teach you how to add daily memory exercises to your routine, and use your brain to the “nth” degree to re-grow brain cells… and shine your brightest.
And I’ll be honest: You might have the best practice in the world, but the truth is ALL brains also need a little extra help if we want to see major results.
Whether you’re just getting started on your memory fitness, or dreaming to be the next memory champion, your brain absolutely needs very specific nutrients to operate best, which are hard to get in the modern diet.
Giving your brain not just its daily vitamins, but the right brain-specific nutrients has a huge impact on learning faster, sharper memory, and being that bright, youthful powerhouse people admire… at any age.
Try it for yourself – it really DOES make a difference!
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