by Jerry Waxler
For most of the twentieth century, scientists believed we are stuck with the neurons we were born with. Well, it was actually worse than that. After birth our neurons started dieing, and it was all downhill from there. But then, in one of the great flip-flops of the last 100 years, neurologists now say we can grow neurons at any age. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how. “Use them or lose them” is appropriate not only for muscles. It’s also true for brain cells. So in addition to exercising to my body, I also exercise my brain. By exercising that part of myself, I not only prevent it from dieing. I help it grow. (If you are interested in more information about the science of growing neurons, or “neuroplasticity” check out the blog at the end of this entry.)
Most people find working out boring, preferring to get their physical activity doing something enjoyable, like playing tennis or gardening. Similarly, you can find brain exercises that are fun and productive. If you want an activity that can keep your brain growing and vital, try writing a memoir. Writing about your life, in my opinion, is the mother of all brain exercises. It forces you to search for words, puzzle out phrases, and organize stories. So while you’re writing, you are developing neuronal connections in your frontal cortex. That’s the body part that enables you to plan and think. And while you’re exercising your brain, you are also shaping your ideas about who you are and where you fit in with the world. If you tell a good enough story, you can share it with others. And you might even be able to sell it and add money to the long list of benefits.
When I was in my forties, to gear up for the second half of my life, I started to read self-development literature. One of the best was Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It changed my life by pointing out that while most of my effort went into my employer’s success, I also needed to invest in my own skills and satisfaction. This magnificent concept put me through graduate school where I earned a Master’s degree in counseling when I was 52.
There were a couple of other concepts in Covey’s book that made a difference. One is his suggestion to write out a mission statement of what I want the future to look like. At the time, I was unenthusiastic about writing my values. I thought the exercise was too abstract. But later, when I became interested in memoir writing, I discovered the value of telling the story of life, and I recognized that a mission statement is simply a story that leads towards the future. So my self-help idea of writing memoirs made Covey’s idea of a mission statement more meaningful. Here’s how it works. Write about my life. See that life is a story. Write about the next chapter in the story. A self-help strategy is born.
What does Covey have to do with growing neurons? For one thing, according to neural science, self-improvement develops the brain. Follow good habits and your neurons will grow. But Covey also advocates a more direct approach. His habit called “sharpening the saw” is based on the observation that when you cut wood with a dull blade, your task takes longer. To work more effectively improve the blade. He’s talking about the things we do to take care of our physical and mental health, staying active, staying balanced, building skills. I suggest adding “growing neurons” to the list. What better investment could you make in your own future than daily exercise to maintain your brain? And my favorite exercise, with the most direct effect is to write your memoir.
For more about the science of brain development at any age check out the blog Brains on Purpose The author of the blog is Stephanie West-Allen, a lawyer who is interested in the way brain science can help reduce conflict. She has teamed up with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, a leading researcher and author in neuroplasticity. The blog is loaded with references to neuroplasticity, and is a good starting point for learning about the general issues of exercising (and changing!) your brain.