When was the last time you did something that you’ve never done before? That is the pursuit of novelty, and it’s good for your brain. Children do this all the time. I remember one particular time when my son amazed me with his enthusiasm for doing something new..
Diamonds in his hand
The sliding glass door behind me opened and my eight year son raced eagerly to the kitchen table where I sat, paying bills. He waved a hand in my face .“Mom, look! Are they diamonds?”
I caught the scent of sweet green grass mixed with the earthy smell of dirt and the tang of sweat from his damp head. It was summer in Houston, Texas, and the jumble of odors could have been a signature cologne named Boy. I threw an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close for a hug, but he wiggled away and again thrust his grimy fist in front of my face.
“Mom, look!” He’d been poking through a pile of marble-sized gravel in the backyard. In his hand were three translucent stones. Their split surfaces gleamed in the sunlight from the window.
I smiled. “No, honey, those aren’t diamonds, they’re quartz. Aren’t they pretty?”
Nodding, he left the stones on the table next to me and went back outdoors. A few minutes later, he returned. “Is this one a diamond?”
“No, this one is quartz too.” I suspected what he was up to and thought I’d share some pertinent information with him. “You know, honey, diamonds are really, really rare.”
“Uh huh, I know.” He set the stone gently on the table, next to the first three and quietly walked to the door. I returned to my work. It was a while before I heard the sliding door move again.
“Hey, Mom, what about this one?” This time, he’d found a tumbled piece of clear crystal quartz and the split surface had a glass-like sparkle.
“This is beautiful. But it’s still quartz. You know son,” I said gently, “I don’t think anyone has ever found a diamond in Texas.”
He looked over his shoulder and beamed at me as he headed out the door. “That’s okay. I want to be the first!”
Be the first
The first. When was the last time you decided to do what had never been done before? Does the notion seem impossible? How could one even approach such a task?
It isn’t so far-fetched as you might think, when you bring it down to a personal level. When was the last time you did something you had never done before?
Still daunting? Children do brand new things all the time. They learn to walk. They learn to talk, and read, and write. We can do new things, too. And we should.
Build more brain connections
In a very real sense, we get old because we cease pursuing novelty. We stop learning. Ever wonder why children can keep you young (when they’re not wearing you out)? Because so much of life is new to them. Newness generates enthusiasm, sharpens the mind, and is good for the body. It builds connections in your brain.
By conservative estimate, there are 100 billion neurons in your brain, each with tens of thousands of synaptic connections. With so many connections there already, why should you care about building more?
It’s a fair question. Try this: According to brain experts, the more connections your brain has, the more resource you have for recovery should some of those connections be injured. The more connections you can lose before functional impairment occurs. The more connections you have, and the more new connections you grow, the easier it is to grow still more connections. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn more.
No one has ever managed to fill a brain with as much knowledge as it can hold. The more we learn, the more we can learn. Does everything you learn stay forever? No, but who cares? It never did. Does your child remember all the fun, wonderful things you did with them when they were two years old? No. Were those things important and worth doing? Of course they were. Those experiences helped mold their brains, helped connections form and strengthen. It doesn’t matter that they are not remembered; the positive effects of good experiences remain.
And so it is with us. There are limitless possibilities for new things to do, to learn, to try. Do you want to learn a foreign language, develop a new skill, take up a hobby? Do you need to break a habit you have never successfully broken before?
The “reasons” not to are legion. “I’ll make a fool of myself” and “I don’t have the time” are the most frequently heard. But these excuses pale beside the advantages.
Research supports the idea that “active learning” pursued throughout life will help minimize or prevent loss of functional brain power as we age. What do the experts mean by active learning? The key is novelty. Doing the crossword every day is good; working a type of puzzle that is new to you is better. Look for tasks that require both mental and physical agility. The very best experience you can give your brain is something that engages mind and body in a novel way. Learning a new dance, a new sport, how to play an instrument, how to speak a foreign language are all better than merely reading or listening to new information.
Someone has said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Don’t get caught in that trap.
Do something new.
Go for a first.
Until next time…
(Data source: The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, www.dana.org )