The human brain has come to be understood as the most complicated thing humans have ever encountered. It is a complex network of about 100 billion nerve cells that communicate with each other electrochemically, and restructure themselves as we learn new skills. We have only come to see the brain this way in the last fifteen years, and with this new understanding, one neuroscientist has developed a practical strategy to make the most of our brains incredible ability to adapt.
With our new understanding of the brain, we know that the pathways in our brains can be strengthened through practice or weakened through neglect. This ability of the brain is known as neuroplasticity, and Lawrence Katz, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, described it as “your brain’s natural desire to form associations, to do things in different ways that cause it to form new associations.“
This understanding of the brain led Katz to write a book with Manning Rubin entitled Keeping Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness. Understanding the brains ability to strengthen certain connections, Katz developed a series of exercises designed to stimulate and strengthen connections in the brain that are not normally stimulated.
One of the exercises Katz and Manning’s book mentions is brushing ones teeth with different hands every day. While you may not be able to quickly learn how to brush your teeth with your weak arm, your brain is receiving the benefits immediately. By using connections it rarely uses, the brain strengthens those pathways that are traditionally not used and are thus weaker.
Through strengthening these weak neural connections, the brain is able to perform better at processes such as memory recollection, as well as sustaining these faculties in later life. “The capacity of the brain to form new associations is essentially unlimited,” Katz states in his book. Similarly, if you are a student, you can sit in a different place in your lecture halls everyday.
This may not seem like a drastic change, but varying your habits stimulates the brain more than performing routine, unconscious actions. By exercising the brain through actions that are unfamiliar, you are physically rewriting your brain, strengthening parts of your brain that are often neglected.
Neurobics represents an early attempt to apply our new understanding of the brain in our personal capacities. The opinion that Katz holds in his book, that the brain’s neuroplasticity could have massive potential benefits for us as individuals, is shared by the renowned neuroscientists Dr. Norman Doige and Professor Frederick Mendelsohn. These benefits include improving skills that are unfamiliar and stimulating parts of the brain that, as you age, will ensure more effective neurological processes such as memory retention.
So next time you have to walk somewhere, attend a meeting or brush your teeth, try perform the action in a way that feels unfamiliar, unpracticed or unusual. Despite its initial confusion at doing something differently, your brain will actually be the better for it, and so will you.