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.”