4-2 Why Should You Keep Learning?

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Widely admired orator Robert Sobukwe who spoke so eloquently for the cause of liberation of black South Africans from the rule of apartheid was subjected to six years of solitary confinement in the same prison that housed Nelson Mandela on remote Robben Island. If you knit, sew, quilt, do plumbing or carpentry, play games, use your computer or read, for example, research shows you're more likely to have stronger cognitive ability as you age. When some synapses and neurons naturally disappear as part of the aging process, you've got others waiting in the wings that can take over the neural pathways and maintain your mental abilities.

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There are very good reasons to always keep learning throughout your life. We know that there are some 1,400 new neurons that are born everyday in your hippocampus. You can see your brain’s hippocampus in red right here. While this image here is actually of a growing neuron. You can see the expansion and the new linkages as it’s growing. There’s only a modest decline in your neural birth rate as you age. But unless your brain continues to encounter new experiences, which often means learning something new, your new neurons will die off before they mature and hook into that larger neural network. They’re kind of like vines that languish and die because there’s no trellis. In adults, new neurons allow us to distinguish between similar experiences and store them as distinct memories. This means that for new learning, as well as for mental health, it’s important to help new neurons be born, survive, and thrive. Of course, we know that physical exercise is one of the most powerful medications we know of that helps produce new neurons. It’s as if exercise scatters these sorts of seeds that become neural sprouts. Learning is like water and fertilizer that encourages the growth of those new neural sprouts. The younger you are, the more likely it is that anything you experience is new. As you age it gets easier to fall into a rut. Even when you tell yourself you are learning something new, it’s often just a slight riff on something you already know. Learning that makes an impact on the brain often means going just a bit beyond your comfort zone. A useful way to allow new neurons to survive, thrive, and make those new connections is to do something truly new and different every day. This automatically presents your brain with novel experiences. These novel experiences can be as simple as using your left hand to brush your teeth if you’re right handed, or just sitting in a different chair at the dinner table. This is also why travel can be so incredibly invigorating. It helps keep the brain tuned up, especially if you do your best to immerse yourself in the new culture and surroundings. Learning a foreign language when you’re older may be especially worthwhile, because the areas of the brain that are positively affected by language learning include many of the areas that are negatively affected by aging. In brain terms if you don’t use it, you can lose it, no matter how innate and natural your gifts may seem. Widely admired orator Robert Sobukwe who spoke so eloquently for the cause of liberation of black South Africans from the rule of apartheid was subjected to six years of solitary confinement in the same prison that housed Nelson Mandela on remote Robben Island. He could communicate with other prisoners only through furtive hand signals. During this terrible time Sobukwe could feel his powers of speech slipping away. Those who’ve spent extended periods at isolated locations with few opportunities to speak with others often find themselves stumbling through simple conversations upon their return to civilization. My husband Phil experienced this when he spent a year at remote Siple Station in Antarctica. Hobbies can also help keep us mentally tuned up, especially when those activities are combined with physical exercise. If you knit, sew, quilt, do plumbing or carpentry, play games, use your computer or read, for example, research shows you’re more likely to have stronger cognitive ability as you age. These findings make sense. For example, measuring and cutting for either quilting or carpentry clearly help maintain your spatial abilities. There’s also evidence that the more you keep up a learning lifestyle, especially as you grow older, the lower your long-term risk of devastating illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise, learning, and exposure to new environments can help create and nurture new neurons and synapses. These new synapses and neurons create what’s called a cognitive reserve. When some synapses and neurons naturally disappear as part of the aging process, you’ve got others waiting in the wings that can take over the neural pathways and maintain your mental abilities. Researchers are uncovering new ways to help our brains maintain their youthful flexibility even as we age. You might be surprised to hear that action videos can actually be really helpful here. Eventually we may well see video games being prescribed by doctors.

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