If you can’t remember where you left your keys or the name of a new colleague, it’s probably not stupidity or dementia. More likely, your brain has gotten caught in ruts and information overload. But you can help your brain learn and remember. Create new connections—big or small—and your brain becomes more active and stays flexible. Even the brains of older people can grow new neurons. Here are five ways to create new neural pathways and to help your brain stay plastic:
1. Laugh. It’s good for your brain! Humor works in the whole brain, and quickly. Less than a half-second after you hear or see something funny, an electrical wave moves through the higher brain functions of the cerebral cortex: the left hemisphere analyzes the joke’s words and structure; the right hemisphere interprets the meaning. Meanwhile, the visual sensory area of the occipital lobe creates images; the limbic (emotional system) makes you happier; and the motor sections make you smile or laugh. In short, laughter improves alertness, creativity, and memory. Those who study the new field of gelotology, which explores the benefits of laughter, have found that laughter lowers blood pressure, increases vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood, provides a workout to the diaphragm and various other muscles, reduces certain stress hormones, increases disease- and tumor-killing cells, and defends against respiratory infections. Help your brain by smiling, reading a few comics, or faking a chuckle or two. It’s infectious.
2. Exercise. Movement helps you think. The brain’s cognitive and movement functions work side by side, sharing the same automatic process. When you solve a problem, you imagine moving through the steps. Exercise also stimulates the production of brain chemicals, such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which encourages growth of new nerve connections. If youalready exercise, great – keep going. If you resist exercising, then add variety to reengage yourself. If you don’t exerciseat all, then it’s time to begin. Park two blocks from the store or the office, and walk the distance. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. The invigoration and joy of movement will build over time. Here are other suggestions: schedule a walk with a friend, join a gym, and mark out your exercise time on a calendar as a reminder of your commitment.
3. Balance light and darkness. Changes in light can affect the brain, even if you’re not aware of it. For example, the lack of sufficient brightness in the wintertime can lead to seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as the blues. When we move the clocks back and forth (from Daylight Savings to Standard Time), there are more accidents on the road. We need light. The brain uses it to enhance alertness. Even ambient light positively influences hormone release and heart rate. We also need darkness to synchronize our body clock. Indoor lights, computers, street lamps, and television sets can create too much brightness at night. To restore the balance between light and dark, go outside in the morning for a walk in the daylight, use light boxes in the winter, turn off or dim the television and computer, darken the rooms of your house at dusk, and wear a good eyeshade when yousleep.
4. Learn. New skills help you do more than just say merci in French. Learning strengthens the whole brain. Start by simplytrying new things: visit a new place, learn a song, and rearrange the furniture—they all stimulate your neurons. Or do normal things in odd ways, such as brushing your teeth with your left (non-dominant) hand, taking a new route home, or sleeping on the wrong side of the bed. At first you might feel a little awkward or silly, but then you will begin to enjoy the challenge. Learn something new like quilting or bridge, or take a community class in engine repair or gourmet cooking. You can also try a new or harder Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. As a reward, you’ll come away with new skills and possibly give your brain a better chance against Alzheimer’s.
5. Create. For years, scientists believed the right side of the brain was responsible for creativity. However, recent functional brain scans show that the whole brain engages in creative thinking. You can stoke your creativity by getting bored (reducing time spent watching TV and movies, turning off the computer and video games, or not reading). Your brain will turn to itself for inspiration. You can also build time for creative experience: try a new craft, put a sketch pad on your desk, or make a date to spend a half hour each week writing, painting, knitting, or building a bird house. Pump the creative well, and you’ll inspire yourself while building new neural connections.
Remember, your brain is flexible and alive regardless of your age, and no matter how many keys or words you misplace. By reducing stimulation and making little changes, you’ll appreciate your wonderful brain. Start big or small, and you’ll find your brain coming back to life.
Sondra Kornblatt is the author of “A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits” (Conari Press, December 2008)