Take another road home

Life thrives on chaos, but we want order and dulling routine. We prefer the safety of habit to the unpredictability of the new and unexpected.

Our ancestors adapted or died. It wasn’t a corporate slogan. The brain evolved to handle the challenges and complexity that the environment posed.

All the senses were needed all the time; there was no mundane or routine.

There is a theory that we use the right hemisphere of our brain to learn and then the left side takes over.

Unfortunately, our society is left-brain dominant and doesn’t pay much attention to the right hemisphere. While our ancestors lived with all the senses saturated, from the right side, we constrict life so it dribbles instead of flows.

Since we don’t have to run from a sabre-toothed tiger or chase a gazelle, we exercise for health. Walking up a flight of stairs without breathing heavily, or being able to tie our shoes without sitting down improves the quality of life.

Just as aerobics is good for the body, neurobics is good for the brain, especially the aging brain. A few mental pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks keep the grey matter wrinkled and elastic and the white matter as shiny as though it were scrubbed with Ajax.

“Neurobics requires you to do two simple things you may have neglected in your lifestyle,” Lawrence C. Katz, a former professor of neurobiology, writes in Keep Your Brain Alive.

“Experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all your senses in the course of the day.”

We’re uncomfortable with change. We dress the same way, have the same thing for breakfast, drive the same way to work, line up at the same coffee shop, eat at the same restaurant and return home exactly the same way.

Numbing routine acts like a sleeping pill on the brain, which is why we can drive home and have no idea where we spent the last 25 minutes. The body was in the car, but the mind was elsewhere.

Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, it isn’t the drive home we miss, but life itself.

When we repeat the same predictable, routine and thoughtless actions, habits and behaviour, our brains stagnate. We stay in the same groove, the same lifelong rut.

We used to believe we couldn’t change, that the adult brain was set. But we don’t have that excuse any more because science has shown our brain is plastic.

We can mould, shape, sculpt it by doing things differently, learning and having new experiences, just as we did when we were young. The brain does not have to fossilize with age.

Up for a game? After work, before getting into the car, let’s close our eyes, toss the keys around a few times, find the right one, unlock the door, feel around for the ignition and start the motor.

Drive home by a different route, but with eyes open, watching and hearing everything — with the car radio and the cellphone off. When we get home, do the same thing with our house keys. Walk around the home with eyes closes – and see it again for the first time.

When we can’t see, we use touch, smell, hearing and spatial memory to find our way around out house — and around the furniture, the dog and the cat. Different actions create new and different patterns of neuronal activity in the brain.

“If you would know the truth, close your eyes and walk in the dark,” St. John of the Cross wrote a few hundred years ago.

Michael Merzenich isn’t a saint, although as one of the leading researcher on brain plasticity, he has almost god-like status in the science world. The professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco notes that neurons form a network only when we pay attention to the stimulus.

“In response to the right stimuli, neural connections can be rewired and refined, the brain’s gray matter can thicken, and new neurons can be produced.

“In general, the brain needs to learn, to reason, to act. Without it, it deteriorates. I assume that we brain scientists understand this with increasing clarity, and whatever else the information explosion contributes to humankind, we'll understand, with increasing clarity, what the average individual has to do to maintain lifelong brain fitness.”

That means if we don’t use it, we lose it. The dendrites, branches at the end of the nerve cells that receive and process information, atrophy, retarding the brain’s ability to create new memories and find old ones.

Learning is forming new neuronal relationship and remembering is keeping the relationship alive.

By not living by rote, but doing things differently, we force the brain to use more neurons to learn new things. If we brush our teeth with our left hand, put a different leg than usual into our pants first and button our shirt from the bottom instead of the top — with eyes closed — it forces us to pay attention.

Even taking a cold shower brings us shivering into the present instead of day dreaming or worrying about how the day will unfold.

“When we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, the brain activates a host of other synaptic networks, and we don’t learn,” wrote Anders Ericsson, psychology professor at Florida State University, and an expert on expertise.

“With the exception of the influence of height and body size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level.”

If we pay attention and practise, we can become what we daydream about. The road to greatness starts with taking a different route home.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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