By Nelson Coulter
Funny how I’ve gotten much more attentive to research on the aging process in the last few years. As part of that heightened interest I have become familiar with a good bit of information on the nature and capabilities of the human brain. One thing that is abundantly clear is that our brains (even those that have some age on them, like mine) have a tremendous capacity to LEARN new things.
For a long time, neurological and cognitive researchers believed that the brain’s plasticity and malleability would peek and reach a plateau between the ages of 20 and 30; from there it would coast into a slow and steady decline for the rest of one’s life. However, our most current understanding of the brain has debunked that view. We now know that the brain can continue to learn, to build new connections, and to remain very energetic throughout one’s life. Similar to other dimensions of our lives (e.g., physical, spiritual, emotional), we have significant ability to impact the vitality of our brains through some conscious choices we make.
That new understanding has caused me to engage in some careful reflection on how best to keep my brain growing, stretching, and learning even into the golden years. Let me share some of the choices I have made for my brain, to that end.
Be curious. Learning to be inquisitive and at the same time trying to suspend any previously held conceptions or assumptions is an exercise in mental acrobatics. I have tried to learn to ask many and better questions of those who know things of interest to me. As well, the Internet has provided us all with handy access to the sum of all human knowledge, which most of us now carry around in our pockets. I have been re-training myself to go beyond just wondering about things (like how a windmill works, or how peanut butter is made, or how to change the oil filter on a 1953 John Deere tractor, etc.) and to actively seek the answers to those interesting questions. You probably have a lot of the same kinds of questions. Amazingly, those answers are now readily available to ALL of us, almost instantly. Wow!
READ! I have committed myself to a persistent regimen of reading. Reading a wide range of literature is part of that decision. I have found that mixing genres and reading fiction and non-fiction at the same time has caused my brain to engage in something similar to what is known as fartlek training in the physical fitness world (look it up!). This exercise has caused my brain to make a lot of connections I would not have considered previously. Reading is simply the most efficient method of learning known to mankind.
Write. Through my many years as an educator, I have become convinced that there is not more cognitively challenging task we ask of students than to learn to communicate well through the writing process. (No, I am not an English teacher). The task of organizing what we know and believe inside our own minds and presenting that information in a coherent, sensible, and crystal clear way in written form to others is a most challenging exercise. (Engaged in that activity right now).
Embrace novelty. The brain naturally enjoys new stimuli, of all kinds. Consequently, I have determined to expose my brain to new environments and situations. (Choosing to read in a variety of genres is an example of this strategy). Going to new places, meeting new people, tasting new foods, listening to new kinds of music have all provided me with some interesting “energy” as I become aware of my brain working to make sense of these new and interesting stimuli. The brain constantly engages in a process of trying to categorize, compare, and contrast the new information with what it has previously experienced. In effect, sense making.
Engage with many people (the smarter the better). This concept is closely related to the one above. Humans are clearly one of God’s most interesting “inventions.” We come in a million variations of size, shape, and color. Similarly, our brains are just as diverse as our external qualities. Making myself engage with more people has proven to be a very useful and healthy exercise for my brain. This choice has been one of the more difficult for me, because engaging others (especially strangers) forces me well outside my comfort zone. Think of it as “vegetables” for your brain.
Get better, on purpose. Being on a journey of continuous personal and professional improvement has been an evolutionary process for me. Interestingly, it naturally flows from engaging in the purposeful activities I’ve already shared with you. In a strange sort of way, the more I have exposed myself to in the way of brain stimuli, the more aware I have become of my need to grow, stretch, engage – to LEARN! I have learned that, contrary to commonly held beliefs, I do not have to be simply “the way I am” (to quote from a Merle Haggard standard). I have the power to be who I choose to be, if I am willing to challenge my brain (and my body and my spirit) in purposeful efforts at growth. The goal? I can be a better husband, dad, granddad, son, friend, superintendent, professor, rancher, etc., IF I choose to be.
My vocation and my avocation is that of being an educator, a person whose fundamental mission is to aid and abet learning in others. (Cool job, huh?). Consequently, this stuff about how my brain works is pretty important. It’s just an added benefit that my learning in that regard has such interesting connections and impact on my life as a whole.
Perhaps you can find connections for yourself in my experiences and rambling.