4. Stay Calm
So you may be saying to yourself, I have to sign up right now for Swahili and calculus and accordion lessons before my brain withers away! Stop! Breathe. Relax. Good.
While challenging your brain is very important, remaining calm is equally so. In a paper on the brain and stress, Jeansok Kim of the University of Washington asserts, in no uncertain terms, that traumatic stress is bad for your brain cells. Stress can “disturb cognitive processes such as learning and memory, and consequently limit the quality of human life,” writes Kim.
One example is a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is a primary locus of memory formation, but which can be seriously debilitated by chronic stress. Of course, physical exercise is always a great destressor, as are calmer activities like yoga and meditation. And when you line up your mental calisthenics (your Swahili and swing lessons), make sure you can stay loose and have fun.
5. Give It a Rest
Perhaps the most extreme example of the mental power of staying calm is the creative benefit of sleep. Next time you’re working on a complex problem, whether it be a calculus proof or choosing the right car for your family, it really pays to “sleep on it.”
Researchers at Harvard Medical School have looked at the conditions under which people come up with creative solutions. In a study involving math problems, they found that a good night’s rest doubled participants’ chances of finding a creative solution to the problems the next day. The sleeping brain, they theorize, is vastly capable of synthesizing complex information.
6. Laugh a Little
Humor stimulates the parts of our brain that use the “feel good” chemical messenger dopamine. That puts laughter in the category of activities you want to do over and over again, such as eating chocolate or having sex. Laughter is pleasurable, perhaps even “addictive,” to the brain.
But can humor make us smarter? The jury is still out and more studies are needed, but the initial results are encouraging. Look for a feature on exciting new research about humor and intelligence in the September issue of Reader’s Digest.
7. Get Better With Age
In our youth-obsessed culture, no one’s suggesting a revision to the Constitution allowing 20-year-olds to run for President. The age requirement remains at 35. You’ve heard about the wisdom and judgment of older people? Scientists are starting to understand how wisdom works on a neurological level.
When you are older, explains Merzenich, “you have recorded in your brain millions and millions of little social scenarios and facts” that you can call upon at any time. Furthermore, he notes, “you are a much better synthesizer and integrator of that information.”
Older people are better at solving problems, because they have more mental information to draw upon than younger people do. That’s why those in their 50s and 60s are sage. They’re the ones we turn to for the best advice, the ones we want to run our companies and our country.
As Barry Gordon, a neurologist at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter, puts it, “It’s nice to know some things get better with age.”