Illustration by Valero Doval for the NY Times
Now that it is a fresh new year, many are thinking of new years resolutions and what they can do to improve on the previous year. Several years ago, I wrote about an article I had read in the NY Times by Oliver Sacks entitled This Year, Change Your Mind. Many of you may be familiar with 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 premise in the article for the Times was 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 have hopefully inherited 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.
But exercising the brain doesn’t have to be difficult. Exposing yourself to new cultures and experiences counts as well. Travel is a figurative and literal eye opener. I hope to be doing a bit more of it this year to both new and well loved locations. Next up will be Paris later this month – let’s hope the weather is better than last year when I took the shot above. 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.”
10 thoughts on “This Year, Change Your Mind”
Happy New Year and many thanks for all of your wonderful posts.
Happy New Year Stacey–The “well-roundedness” of your posts is much appreciated!
Words to live by!! I’m forwarding this column to friends, relatives, etc. franki
Stacy, I have no doubt that your brain is constantly stimulated as you continuously research and write about such a variety of things for our pleasure. Thank you. This really hit home for me as my dad is currently suffering from Alzheimers Disease. I think maybe it is time for me to take piano lessons or brush up on my French!
Just forwarded this to people I know who will appreciate. Thanks Stacey!!!
One of my favorite quotes is “experience is an interior decoration” and now I can add “and promotes cognitive fitness” to that! Great post Stacey and reminder that engagement keeps you young. Bonne Annee and perhaps I’ll see you in Paris later in the month. – Jana
Thank you Stacey. After reading your insightful post I downloaded Dr. Sacks new book and it is as informative as you wrote it would be. I am going to tune my piano and get to work, and start Russian lessons— thanks to you. As always, you open the world for your readers. Xxxx Howard
I am going to get this today. At 61 I began taking French. I just love it and it changed my world. Next year I will volunteer to assist French speaking tourists in are visiting Central Ky. I have begun to play the piano again and practice an hour every day. I will never play the way I did in high school and college, but I just love it. I feel younger than I did 5 years ago.
Love this post. The new year always inspires me to try something new and this year I want to take a little time each day and write. Three years ago I started my blog and that has been very satisfying. I took a fabulous writing workshop in the fall and am inspired now to do some creative writing. I learned how to play bridge a few years ago, which was very challenging, and love it. Thank you for your blog and the endless inspiration you provide for all of us! Happy New Year, Stacey!
Yes, Stacey, we are constantly trying to work our brains over here. The older I get, the more I try to use it in different ways. Certainly a blog is challenging – for a mother that had no idea how to cut and paste or download picture 3 years ago, I think I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes all of the technology makes my brain tired…Wishing you all the best in the new year!!