This post came to me one morning last week as I was thinking about my new hobby. A few weeks ago, I purchased a drum set. I have been wanting to learn an instrument for a couple years now, but never got around to it. While drums was my first choice, guitar seems much more practical. Then I came across a great deal on these drums and the rest is history.
Anyway, I purchased a “Teach Yourself Drums” book to try to learn some foot and hand coordination before I start taking lessons. Each time I practice, I’ll progress as far as I can until it gets to the point that I just can’t get it, call it a night, then come back a day or two later and start again. I step back a couple lessons from where I “failed” the last practice session as a warmup, then proceed through to where I was. And thus far, I’ve noticed that coordination that doesn’t work one night is so much easier the next time.
I got to thinking about the brain learning much like a muscle grows. In the gym, you “tell” your muscles you want them to grow by pushing them hard, then letting them repair the damage to be even stronger. It seems that I’m pushing my brain by saying “Okay, I really need you to play this simple beat,” and while it often doesn’t click right away, sleeping on it allows the brain to put together the connections that I need.
Making New Connections
Science has already proven that the old myth that the brain doesn’t grow new neurons is incorrect. The adult brain is very much still growing and learning, still forming new nerve connections. An obvious example of this is when an area of the brain is damaged such that a specific skill should be impossible, yet the brain reroutes nerve connections and a patient relearns the skill without the “necessary” part of the brain.
In fact, anytime you learn something new, neurons are joining forces to deliver information in new ways. There is a chemical found in the body known as cypin. In the brain, this enzyme helps neurons form new dendrites, the conductors of electrochemical signals throughout the body. And when the neurons are stimulated, they produce more cypin. Basically, give your brain a workout and it’ll reward you by growing additional receptors for passing information along. Further, it’ll remove connections that aren’t filling the bill. It’s like Darwinian evolution on a micro-level.
The research further shows that this process of creation, testing, and reconfiguring of brain circuits takes place on a scale of just hours, suggesting that the brain is evolving considerably even during the course of a single day.
Keeping The Brain Strong
Surely we’ve all seen someone we know “lose their mind” as they age, whether from a disease such as Alzheimer’s or just general forgetfulness. As much as I focus on nutrition and fitness here, it’s equally important to take care of your brain. In fact, without the brain, the body is pretty well useless.
So how do you keep your brain humming along? Well, pretty much anything that forces you to think in new ways is going to give your brain a workout, such as:
Learning a second (or third or fourth) language
Learning to play an instrument
Working crossword or Sudoku puzzles
Reading a book
Writing a story or article
And here’s one more thing that helps your brain: exercise of the physical variety. It looks like being fit keeps the brain from undergoing as much age-related shrinkage:
As people age, especially after age 30, these tissues shrink. The study found that the fitter the body, the less shrinkage there was in the areas that control memory and other “thinking” tasks.
Older adults who exercise regularly have increased blood flow and more small blood vessels in the brain, a new study shows.
I might be reaching here, but we all know I like to speculate a bit. Just like your muscles, your brain operates on the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle. However, it seems that you don’t want to focus on any one particular form of brain exercise exclusively, but incorporate several different types of activity. Just as in the gym, doing the same thing over and over isn’t going to achieve the best results. I regularly work crossword puzzles and read (both fiction and non-fiction), along with my new-found hobby of playing the drums (poorly) and writing here.
Who knew that playing the drums would be such a brain workout?
So you eat right and keep your body strong…what are you doing for your brain?