Brain Calisthenics

I’ve worked and consulted at quite a few companies, large and small, privately held and public, and public sector and government.  And no matter where my travels take me, one of the sad things I consistently observe in select individuals are traits such as apathy, complacency, and even laziness.  This is unfortunate for so many reasons.  One’s overall zeal for life is reduced and if left un-checked can very dramatically limit long term job security and career potential.  To buck this trend (and not join this group) I’ve concluded that as you get older its important to fight to keep pushing forward on a continual learning curve.

My ponderings were recently brought into a more scientific focus when I (finally) read a dusty copy of Harvard Business Review and came across a most excellent article:  “New Research In Neuroscience Shows How To Stay Sharp By Exercising Your Brain” by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts.

The article is a real encouragement giving plenty of data as to why these mental endeavors are important.  The premise of the article is that brain exercises aka “mental push-ups” can stave off the loss of memory and analytic acuity that results form aging.  Recent studies have shown that indeed the brain does not necessarily diminish with age. It turns out that neurons, the basic cells that allow information transfer to support the brain’s computing power do not have to die off as we get older. In fact, a number of regions of the brain important to functions such as motor behavior and memory can actually expand their complement of neurons as we age. This process, called neurogenesis, used to be unthinkable in mainstream neuroscience.

So how do you hop on the neurogenesis bandwagon?  Live your life as a life long learner.  The brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities can all be strengthened and improved through your experiences and interactions with your environment. The health of your brain isn’t just the product of negative and positive childhood experiences and genetic inheritance; it reflects your adult choices and experiences as well.   The exciting conclusion of the research is that you can follow a regimen of brain calisthenics to retain and even build your mental capacity as you age – intellectual curiosity pays.

How to stay cognitively fit?  The article describes these steps in much greater detail, but to encourage you to follow up and read it (heck, why not subscribe to HBR to as a mental push-up?), I will recap them below:

  • Step 1: Understand How Experience Makes the Brain Grow
  • Step 2: Work Hard at Play
  • Step 3: Search for Patterns
  • Step 4: Seek Novelty and Innovation

The article goes on to suggest a personal program for exercising your brain.  Once again, some highlights below:

  • Manage by walking about.
  • Read funny books – promotes insight and enhances your health.
  • Play games – activities like bridge, chess, sudoku, and the New York Times crossword puzzle
  • Act out – literally, try different ways of interacting with people
  • Find what you’re not learning – vary your reading, break out of your mold
  • Get the most out of business trips – one off-topic diversion per trip (museum, unique novel, etc.)
  • Take notes—and then go back and read them.
  • Try new technologies.
  • Learn a new language or instrument – take lessons if you need to
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise – the real kind (sorry)

Well, enough for now.  Got to go exercise.  I welcome your comments.
Mike Brannan