You know what’s even more important than all of this though? Using your brain on a regular basis. Again, it’s a matter of use it or lose it. Part of the reason that we see much of the deterioration we do in our brain is because we stop learning new things and stop subjecting ourselves to new experiences. This is a tragic mistake.
We’ve already touched on BDNF and brain plasticity but knowing how this process works is what will really highlight just why it’s so crucial to keep learning. Essentially, whenever you use your brain, you are causing specific neurons in your brain to ‘fire’ (called an action potential).
If two neurons fire at the same time, a connection is caused and the more often those two neurons fire simultaneously, the stronger that connection becomes. This is how we learn and it’s how memories are formed – the more we repeat a task, the more easily one action or one cue will lead to the next.
This is reinforced when we think something is important and give it our full attention – this triggers the release of dopamine and other ‘excitatory neurotransmitters’ which causes the release of BDNF to enhance more synaptic plasticity.
Meanwhile, when a connection isn’t used, ‘pruning’ can occur, which means that the connection gradually deteriorates. The more you learn and the more you keep forming new connections, the more BDNF and dopamine your brain will produce. But when you stop learning new things, you gradually lose the ability to learn them.
Meanwhile, repeating the same actions and the same opinions over and over again, will result in it being very hard for your brain to deviate from those set pathways. This is why it’s common to see older people becoming very opinionated and very set in their ways.
They’ve lost the ability to form new connections but their existing connections are absolutely set in stone. Again, think about how this correlates with changes in our lifestyle. When we are younger, everything is new and we are constantly learning (the brain loves novelty!). This continues when we’re at university and it continues further when we start our careers. But then we fall into a set career path and start to repeat the same tasks every day.
Those tasks lose their challenge and we are essentially just going through the motions.Our production of dopamine and our brain plasticity deteriorates. Around this time, we also stop being active. Then we retire, we stop being active at all and we spend a lot of time doing not a whole lot. We’re not using our bodies, not using our brains and pruning occurs quicker than new connections form.
Thus we become forgetful and we find it harder to engage or to learn new things. The key then is to keep your brain active. Many articles and blog posts you read online will recommend things like chess and reading to this end but in fact what’s really most important is that you keep learning new things.
The brain craves novelty and the more of that you can give it, the better it will remain at growing, learning and adapting. A great way to do this is actually to play computer games. The reason for this is that every computer game requires a different set of motor skills (owing to different controls), creates unique experiences and offers fresh challenges and puzzles. Online ‘social’ games are even better.