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February 27, 2010

Habits and Brain Flexibility

Well it finally happened. After getting me this far through graduate school, my computer bit the dust. I'm officially switched over from a PC to a Mac. I apologize for my lapse in blogging.

Which brings me to a topic that I find fascinating. The brain. It's amazing how quickly we new develop habits. After just two days I'm no longer looking for the X to close a dialog box on the upper right hand side of my windows. It's also amazing how hard it is to discard old habits. From my graphic design days, I use key commands instead of pull-down menus, which greatly speeds up my productivity. Deciding whether to use the "control" or "apple" keys is still the hardest part of the change over for me.

As uncomfortable as change can be, it's one of the ways we can help to keep our brains young. Doing the same thing over and over lays down electrical pathways in the brain that make signals move faster and more efficiently. This is great if you pitch baseballs for a living. Physical therapists will use techniques like constraint induced therapies on people who have had strokes to help forge new pathways in the brain for functional movements.

Unfortunately, for the rest of us, getting into a rut of doing the same old thing isn't good for our brain health. Repetitive actions and thought processes encourages a phenomenon called pruning in the brain, where unused pathways are eliminated. If you have the unfortunate event of a stroke, a brain with fewer pathways for problem solving can be devastated by a stroke. Luckily, games from the makers of Brain Age and luminosity are designed to sharpen brain function in areas such as attention, memory, flexibility, and problem solving. Exercising the brain this way is purported to help stave off dementia.

Of course, you don't have to buy anything like a Nintendo DS or subscribe to an online service to exercise your brain. Simple activities such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or driving a different route to work exercise your brain too. If you love puzzles like I do, changing up the kinds of puzzles you do challenges your brain. Some free on-line games can be found at PopCap Games.

A really expensive and uncomfortable route would be to do what I did and go back to school in your 40s. There have been many days where I've wondered, "what the heck was I thinking??" On really uncomfortable days, it's been convenient to blame my advanced age for my difficulties; I claim my brain just isn't as nimble as my classmates'. But I figure that, despite my family history of dementia, I've bought an insurance policy in prevention. Even though change is uncomfortable, variety makes life more interesting.

Posted by linda at February 27, 2010 8:32 AM

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