New Year’s Resolution: Change Your Mind

I hadn’t planned on writing a post about new years resolutions, but after reading the New York Times Saturday morning, I was inspired to post one for the onset of this new year. Many of you may be familiar with Oliver Sacks. He is the best-selling author and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. He has written many fascinating books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was the basis for the Robert De Niro/Robin Williams movie. His ground breaking neurological case studies are so incredible that if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were fiction.

His article for the Times is entitled This Year, Change Your Mind. His premise is that while our new year’s resolutions tend to focus on physical health (ie – losing weight, exercising more) we tend to overlook the fact that we can strengthen our brain as well. In his usual fashion, he supplies us with truly amazing examples of the “brain’s mysterious and extraordinary power to learn, adapt and grow.” The astounding fact is that growth in the brain can happen quickly, within a matter of days, even for older people. Learning may indeed be easier for children, but the brain never stops growing, offering opportunities for lifelong learning.

I am blessed by good longevity genes – several of my father’s 5 sisters made it into their nineties, as did my mother and her sister, almost all of them with their minds intact. But they also made a conscious effort. One did the NYT crossword puzzle religiously. Another recited the 50 states and all their capitals in alphabetical order daily. My mother was actively involved with the world around her. In her mid 80s she was taking French lessons – her teacher was 94!

Most creative activities are mind expanding but music in particular engages many different parts of the brain. Aside from the pleasure we derive from music, many studies have proven that children who play an instrument do better in school and that exposure to music may benefit a child’s reading age, IQ and the development of certain parts of the brain. Adults can benefit from learning to play an instrument too, so if you were thinking of finally taking those piano lessons – go ahead, not only will it be fun but good for you as well! And if you’re not convinced, read Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. He has amazing tales to tell.

photo collage via elevate destinations

But exercising the brain doesn’t have to be difficult. Exposing yourself to new cultures and experiences counts. (Dominique Browning’s trip to India would be a perfect way to enjoyably expand your mind). So I will let the articulate Dr. Sacks sum it up. “Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow. Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.”

illustration at top by valero doval for the new york times

62 thoughts on “New Year’s Resolution: Change Your Mind

    • CCL – Great idea!! They offer so many great options online now. It’s an easy way to delve into an area that you know nothing about without any fear or embarrassment!

    • Buzz – Already love your father – and of course totally agree! How fabulous that he is till teaching. A very Happy New Year to you!!

    • Zhush – Wishing you a very very happy birthday in advance. Seems to me you are doing just fine!!

  1. This has been my goal from the time I first learned of the amazing brain and how new cells are formed and retained. If these new cells are not used and made to work, they are lost. For me, creating is the key–and my connection to life. Thanks for putting this topic on the table; it is of extreme importance to each human in his/her walk.

    • Hi Mary – Glad to hear you are on the path to lifelong learning. Creativity is of course key!! I think that’s why so many creative people have such long productive lives!

  2. Love this perspective on resolutions! I think expanding our minds is such a perfect goal for the New Year for many reasons. My husband and I were just talking about finding a place for a piano in our new home…I grew up playing and want our children to play…but I also need to pick it back up now after reading your post…music also is such a wonderful way to relieve stress and keep our mind growing! Happy New Year! Caroline

    • Hi Caroline – How great that you are getting a piano!! You will love it as will your children!! Happy New Year to you as well!

    • Hi Kayce – I find Sacks fascinating and the stories are just incredible! Last year I took my daughter to the NY Philharmonic children’s series and they spoke about synesthesia, an amazing phenomenon where the sounds of musical instruments make you see certain colors, each color specific and consistent with the particular instrument playing; a piano, for example, might produces a sky-blue cloud, and a tenor saxophone produce an image of electric purple neon lights. One of the many examples Sacks discusses

  3. What a great resolution! Harking back to my own childhood as an example, I was always a bit…shall we say SLOW..until I got a piano teacher I liked and started to excel with music. No more talk of holding me back a grade and I quickly became a straight A student and graduated top of my class. I hold those piano lessons to blame!

    • AD – LOVE LOVE your story. Such an amazing perfect illustration! Although I find it hard to believe that you were ever slow!

  4. What a great post, and please tell us about the illustration you chose to lead off? I am: buying books on strange and difficult (for me) subjects, like cosmology. Not astrology. But real science. I am learning about Twitter–and trust me, this is a mind bender, for me. My sons are rolling their eyes. I am getting an iPhone. Eventually. And travel–again, that isn’t easy for me, I am much more of a stay-at-home (keeping my carbon footprint trim, but denying myself the pleasure, once I get there, of a new place.) Really, in a way, now that I think on this, Slow Love was all about changing my mind. But what I hadn’t understood till just now, is that you have to keep changing your mind–otherwise….well, the rest is obvious. Great post! Thank you.

    • Hi Dominique – I wish I could take credit for finding or commissioning the perfect illustration for my piece but the NYTimes art director will have to since it accompanied the piece on Saturday. Twitter is not that hard – not nearly as hard as setting up a blog, which you have clearly done with great success. The biggest problem with Twitter is that it is HIGHLY addictive! Let me know when you’re on so I can follow. And you will love your iPhone – of course now don’t know how I lived without it – my old phone still had an antenna! And all these things hard for me as well – I tend to resist change – but keeping an open mind and the ability to change it is key. As Woody Allen once said (about relationships but applies to life in general as well) – it’s like a shark – it has to constantly move forward or it dies.

  5. hmm…what Dr. Sacks didn’t say was sit on the sofa and watch more television … good and timely post…loved it!!!! I think learn more stuff so you can blog about it fits well with what he’s saying….maureen

    • Hi Maureen – Like many of us, I have the need to know gene so of course loved his article as well. One of the reasons I started to blog was to share all the information I tend to accumulate so it doesn’t clog my brain and leaves room for more!!

  6. What a great post! I also like to stay sharp by doing crosswords….an ever-expanding vocabulary is essential in my book. I love the “need-to-know” gene! A new term and one that certainly applies to me. I will have to start using that :)

    xo Kelly

    • Hi Kelly – I used to do the crossword every day when I commuted – it’s a GREAT mental exercise and I agree, increasing one’s vocab is a never ending saga. Glad you like the need-to-know gene – it explains so much!!

  7. Very encouraging post!!
    I also wanted to give you my best wishes for 2011 my friend!! And thank you for all your sweeterst comments on my blog! Ireally appreciate that!
    A big hug,

    • Hi Stacey – Saber es poder – LOVE it!! It’s going to be my new motto!! Wishing you and your family a very happy new year!

  8. What great mental food to chew on. I have a friend who has been encouraging me to learn bridge with her…I’ve heard that’s a really great mind bender.

    Best wishes for whatever new mental activity you embrace this year!

    • PPT – Bridge is a great idea!! I know many people addicted and it’s certainly terrific for mental agility!! Not to mention a fun social activity. Best new year’s wishes to you as well!

  9. I have been thinking about these exact things lately. I read that doing simple things like brushing your teeth with the other hand or getting dressed with your eyes closed can help form new pathways in your brain. My mother has had a lifelong dream to play the piano but thinks now at 64 she is too old. I’m sending her this link today – thanks for the great info.

    • ET – I love those suggestions – but it makes sense – forming new pathways. Your mother should definitely go for it – hope this helps!! Sacks’ stories are incredibly inspiring!!

  10. I love Sudoku, the interactive one in Chicago Sun Times is awesome. But, it’s more than mind exercises, it’s engaging in world affairs, our political system, our business environment, keeping up with “what’s happening now” on the streets of America, not only in fashion but in points of view; the 20-30 somethings are making new rules every day which we should be in touch with. Very timely post, Q. Should get us off to a good positive start to 2011. xx’s

    • Hi Marsha – Might have to check out that interactive Sudoku – sounds like fun. Couldn’t agree with you more about staying in touch with the world – so important not just for the mind but for the soul as well!!

  11. Fabulous post, I so agree with your thoughts on this and am always looking for new classes to keep my mind active. I hope to keep expanding my horizons this year and every year and appreciate your timely reminder! For me, art has been one of the ways to continually stimulate the mind as it’s always changing and never static. Lots of happy wishes to you this first week of the new year!

    xo Mary Jo

    • Hi Mary Jo – Art, like music, is a wonderful way to expand and stimulate your mind. I think creative people are always so open to change in a positive way. Here’s hoping we all get off to a great start!

  12. That is very true. I read a lot about it in past and I totally agree with you. Its so important to exercising the brain…I loved reading this post, my dear and Im off to read the full article now. Thank you and Happy New Year to you and your family

    • Hi Diana – Many of us exercise our brain without any additional effort but sometimes we do have to focus on doing something a bit extra. The article is very interesting!! Happy new year to you as well!

  13. Excellent! If I were not an artist, I would be a therapist, working to study the mind. Some say our first bredth, we erase all we know – and are born to learn. Off to read this article.

    • PVE – Well if you are interested in this subject matter, then you will find Sacks fascinating!! He also gave a TED talk about hallucinations that was engrossing. It is truly amazing the stories he recounts.

  14. Q,
    This should be everyone’s resolution and the world just might fix itself if we were all sharper! I resolved to making reading a priority in my spare time like it once was…until blogging took over!

    • A&A – Nice thought!! I’m with you about reading – I worked in publishing for years and am embarrassed how little I read right now – and yes, primarily because of the blog. I’m still reading and learning, but not the same!!

  15. What a lovely and inspiring post — I’m feeling rather lazy all of a sudden ;)
    But it is true, the brain is indeed an incredible tool which we must whittle and wield more often.
    Cheers and best, Alcira

    • Hi Alcira – Thank you! You are hardly lazy – I don’t believe it. And we bloggers use our brains all the time but sometimes it’s good to mix it up in new ways.

  16. One of the very first books I read in my Neuropsychology class in college was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat…it made a huge and lasting impression on me. I was so excited to see you featuring Oliver Sacks. He’s brilliant!! And so true about exercising the brain. I do believe it’s the perfect example of use it or lose it! I think my way of doing this is by writing in my blog, reading and just being curious. Searching out the answers I don’t know. Thanks so much for this post…Happy New Year!!


    • HH – So pleased to find another fan – isn’t he just amazing?! And yes, as I said to Alcira, blogging definitely uses the brain. I feel I need to make an effort to branch out – and that’s one of his points – that playing a musical instrument for example “engages many different areas of the brain, all of which must work in tandem: from reading musical notation and coordinating fine muscle movements in the hands, to evaluating and expressing rhythm and pitch, to associating music with memories and emotion.”

  17. Love this Q.! My blog has been a lovely creative outlet and I find it rewarding, Still, I need to push harder. So glad my book club has regrouped. We fell off the wagon for 6 months and are coming back together, with renewed dedication this month. I am both reading AND listening to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It is my first book on tape…I’m planning on buying more.

    Best to you and yours in the New Year ahead!

    • Hi Debbi – Major Pettigrew is definitely on my list, along with many others. I’ve never tried books on tape (or I guess CD) – since I spend so much time in the car, perhaps I should! Wishing you a wonderful year to come as well!

    • Hi Shari – I would always much rather work on mind than body – and I certainly hope you’re right that body will follow! A very happy new year to you as well!

    • Hi Barbara – Really?! I’m impressed! Don’t know if you read the NY Times article but Sacks mentions a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore. She couldn’t read a note of music a few years ago. She told Sacks that “I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapses. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.” He agreed.

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