Harnessing Your Brain Power
In my last post, I described the unique talents of a middle-aged brain. To take full advantage of these skills, which include an increased ability to see patterns and make connections, you need a brain that is healthy and functioning.
And here recent science is helping, too. Old ideas that we lose 40 percent of our neurons as we age have been discounted. Now we know we keep most of our brain cells. The task, then, is to help those brain cells stay in shape.
And for that, some solutions are surprisingly simple. One of the best things we can do for our brains is to continue to work. Most modern jobs — even most modern hobbies — are multi-layered and involve socialization as well as problem-solving.
But we also have to, as brain scientists say, "get out of our comfort zones.'' Research shows that it helps to search out people — and ideas — that are different, to rattle established brain patterns, and shake up the cognitive egg to spur growth. (And another good reason to listen to younger colleagues.)
In particular, we need to push our brains in new ways to force them to use their most sophisticated section, the frontal lobes, the part right behind our foreheads that helps us focus, plan, and think strategically. Scientists are investigating whether certain video games can be developed to keep the pathways to our frontal lobes smooth and open. But in the meantime anything that makes our brain work really hard — and wrestle with the new — will help keep your frontal lobes in tune.
There are tricks, too, of course. It helps, when trying to cement a new fact or face to use different parts — or more parts — of our brains. If you want to remember a name, it can help to attach a facial feature to it — Bob, big forehead, for instance. In a similar way, the simple act of visualizing yourself doing something you need to remember to do — writing a memo to Bob — creates a bigger "neural footprint'' and gives you more ways to retrieve the information you need.
And, while you're busy visualizing, you also might consider getting up and moving around. The current star in brain science research is exercise. The brain, like the heart, needs oxygen and blood flow. Old ideas that nutrients and growth factors produced in the muscles don't cross the blood brain barrier are no longer valid.
Indeed, using your body may be the best thing you can do for your body's most crucial part — your brain.
Barbara Strauch is a deputy science editor and health and medical science editor at The New York Times and author The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking), coming out in April.