More research shows that learning new things – novelty – helps ward off dementia. All those “brain games” that you hear advertised might have some positive impact.
Yes, doing those crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good, but more important is to have new experiences, as opposed to doing old ones over and over. Novel experiences strengthen the connections between parts of your brain. Most brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, but new and more challenging activities – such as learning a new language – seem to strengthen entire networks in the brain.
Novelty also includes going to new places and meeting new people. Reading a book is a good thing, but even if it is about a new topic, the experience of reading is not new. Reading about tennis is nowhere near as important to improving the brain as trying to learn how to actually play it.
One study on the impact of exercise on the brain, found that 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. This exercise “improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory.”
Memory is the part that interests my aging brain. When memories are encoded in the brain, it seems that this process involves neurons and their synapses. When we recall a memory, that reactivates those pathways connecting the memory neurons are reactivated. One analogy used is that encoding is like sculpting. We experience things and that demarks certain neurons and then we chisel specific connections between them.
Firing up old pathways – playing a game or reading a novel again – is a good thing. The pathways of memory reactivates some paths that have been unused. Perhaps, if we don’t use those paths for a very long time, it’s not possible to find them again.
Sculpting, creating new pathways, is even better. Might the new pathways cross with older ones creating complex connections? Might new pathways reconnect us with older ones that have been lost over the years? Despite lots of research, the brain is still holds so many unknowns – but what a wonderful adventure.