Youthfulness begins in the brain

Youthfulness begins in the brain

Neuroscientists Norman Doidge and Michael Merzenich recommend keeping the brain young by forcing it to grow new neurons.

Recently I was talking to a man of my age who said he was feeling old. He said he didn’t really want to go out much at night, preferring to stay home and watch TV, or Netflix and equivalent. “I just feel tired when I come home from work, and generally unenthusiastic about anything that’s happening. I don’t want to go to dinner all the time with the same people. Once a week we go out to see a movie, it’s enough.”

I asked whether he danced at all. He looked at me as if I were from outer space. “At our age?” he said. “Where do you go? All those young people smoking and drinking and hanging about in the street.” I asked whether he went to lectures and interesting talks about the place, festivals, workshops. He shook his head. “Not often.”

No wonder he was weary. I told him my motto. “Stay curious, stay young.” Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that cat sure did have a spectacular, interesting and challenging life before all nine lives were up.

In stark contrast to this man, I refuse to let myself become intellectually sedentary. I continue to educate myself all the time. I’m now on my second masters in seven years. Not because I need retraining; I’m just loving being drenched in history and literature. It keeps my mind young and challenged.

Neuroscientists Norman Doidge, who wrote the bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself, and colleague Michael Merzenich (both of whom often visit Australia to give lectures) rave about keeping the brain young by forcing it to grow new neurons.

Neurons are created right throughout the brain when we learn new things, particularly hard new things that stretch our minds and imaginations. For many it is learning a new language, music or maths, which activates various untapped regions of the brain.

For me, I took up learning technical skills, radio equipment and panelling, cameras, edit suites and lighting. A new language in itself.

But any form of study keeps us young. Not to mention hanging with happy, young people who have so much to teach us about the new world order. The other trick I have to stay mentally young is doing things that are outside my comfort zone. At least once a week I force myself to go somewhere or do something that I’m not necessarily drawn to, to stimulate my brain.

I do lots of workshops and many of them are about dance, which also co-ordinates the brain. I recently learned tribal drumming. Easy at it may seem, to try to stay in synch with those wild musicians is an art form.

Of course, physical challenges keep us young. We all know that people who continue to do sport and exercise and play footy with their kids have that rosy, welcoming glow. But keeping the mind alert is so underestimated.

I also try to watch things I ordinarily wouldn’t watch. Although I’m not a fan of war movies or documentaries, I sat through the most extraordinary series by genius filmmaker Ken Burns on the Vietnam War. It was riveting, upsetting, provocative; my mind was alive with so many questions about humanity and so many new insights. Philosophically it cracked me open and also, being a Gen X, I had come in at the tail end of it all, and never understood the milieu I’d been born into.

From time to time we must also travel to overseas destinations that we might feel disinclined to. One of the greatest joys of life is being incredibly surprised. My other big trick is to hang with a few people who are enthusiastic — who inspire me to take radical leaps of faith. We are only as good as the company we keep.

The point isn’t whether we go out and dance, or go to remote Africa or stay at home and study, it’s about staying young in the brain, which then activates all the nerves in the body and spine. When the brain is firing, feel-good hormones are firing, anti-ageing agents are firing, and we feel alive.

Adventurer Jacques Cousteau summed up his endless curiosity and youthful enthusiasm in his motto: “We must go and see for ourselves.”

Ruth Ostrow

Columnist

@ostrowruth

  • 11:00PM November 25, 2018