We all know that stretching is good for our bodies. It allows us to become more flexible and it makes us feel good, particularly in the morning, as we wake up, or when we prepare for a run, exercise, or move from a position we held for a long time. Now research is pointing to the value of a different kind of stretching, one that applies to our brains.
For a long time scientists believed that neurons, the cells that make up our brains, do not regenerate. We are born with a limited number of neurons, it was thought, and no new ones could be created. About 30% of them would die through the course of our lives, and nothing could be done to stop or reverse this process.
As brain research has become more sophisticated in the last ten years, these beliefs have been challenged. Neurons can and do regenerate, as shown by the healing process that occurs in the brain of people who suffered from a stroke, for instance. And more studies are being published showing how the brain stays active, healthy and sharp, and how it grows.
And here is where stretching comes in.
Growth in the brain is produced by exposure to experiences that stretch us, pushing us into unknown areas where we have to embrace new challenges and explore new paths. In so doing we learn to integrate new information with the old, solve new problems and use new approaches in dealing with them. It is this stretching out of our comfort zone – where we feel competent and knowledgeable – and taking a risk in areas where we don’t know much that creates new connections between neurons. And it is the development of new connections that creates growth.
We spend most of our time at our work, doing the same activities day in and day out. Because these activities are repetitive, they become very familiar to us, like second nature. At times we don’t even have to think about what we are doing, as we can perform them automatically. In performing the same activities over and over again, we use the same neuronal connections, strengthening them. This proves, while it makes us more competent, does not cause our brain to grow. This, as we said earlier, can be achieved only by exposing ourselves to new experiences. So, it is very important to counter-balance the regularity and predictability of most of our daily activities with new challenges and explorations into unfamiliar territories.
We may feel hesitant to start something out of our comfort zone, and insecure at first. The rewards, however, will be well worth our initial discomfort. The more we do this, the easier it gets, and the more interests we develop and want to pursue. There is practically no limit to what we can do, if we just put our minds to it. But it is important not to focus exclusively on results but value the process because, even when we don’t achieve as much as we would have liked, our brains benefit from the exercise and grow new connections.
So, let’s take a class, start a new project, develop a new hobby, or venture into a new area. Let us not use your age as an excuse to stop learning and growing, or lack of time, or lack of energy. Brains that stay active remain healthier longer and contribute to more interesting and challenging lives.