I got a phone call from my Mom the other day. Here’s how the conversation went: “Hi Mama, how are you?”….”Not so great.”…. “What’s wrong?”….”Well, I just got a smart phone, but I’m not so smart.” Now, I just have to say, this is absolutely not true. My Mom is one of the smartest people I know. Anyway, she was having some trouble getting her new phone set up and was calling to see if I could help talk her through the process. We managed to get some basic things set up, and she was able to start putting contacts in….enough to get her started with it. We decided that when I came to visit, we would take a look at it and I could show her some other things that she could do with it.
We went down Thursday, and she and I played around with it until she was comfortable. She actually caught on pretty quickly. She had never used a smart phone in her life, but she was willing to learn. My Mom is a wonderful example of a lifelong learner. She doesn’t shy away from new technology or learning new hobbies, and she’s constantly on the lookout for new cooking techniques.
Continuing to learn throughout our lifetime is vitally important.
For those of us who live with chronic conditions, we already know that it’s important to learn everything we can about them so we can be informed patients and advocate for ourselves when needed. With the number of different medical conditions and illnesses there are, we can’t expect our medical professionals to be completely up to speed on every single condition. That’s where we come in – when we arm ourselves with knowledge and come into our doctors’ appointments prepared, we make things easier both for ourselves and our doctors.
One thing we may not think about, though, is our need to continue learning, not just about what is going on with our bodies, but new things in general, throughout our lives.
Even if we don’t have any current medical problems lifelong learning is critical to maintaining our mental health as long as we live.
In his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen, neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and brain-imaging expert, says,
“New learning creates new connections in the brain, but the absence of learning causes the brain to start disconnecting itself. No matter what your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. Learning has a very real effect on neurons: it keeps them firing and it makes it easier for them to fire. There are approximately a thousand trillion synapses in the brain, and each one of them may wither and die if not actively firing. Like muscles that don’t get used, idle nerve cells waste away.”
Wow! That really puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? I certainly don’t want my synapses withering and dying! How about you?
“The best mental exercise is acquiring new knowledge and doing things that you have not done before.” – Dr. Daniel Amen
As Dr. Amen explains it, when we do the same things over and over, our brain adapts and starts to use less and less energy to do those tasks. Learning new things creates new connections and helps improve function in other areas of the brain, areas that we may not use as often if we’re doing the same things over and over.
The new learning doesn’t have to encompass the type of learning we do in school, though that would certainly qualify. It can be things like learning to perform a new task, getting involved in a new hobby, starting a new exercise program like Tai Chi or Yoga, or playing games that you’ve never played before. The possibilities are endless!
The important thing is just to keep learning throughout our lifetimes. This will keep us strong mentally throughout our lives, and who knows, we might find a new passion in the process.
What new thing have you learned lately? What’s one new thing you’d like to learn?
Daniel G. Amen, M.D. Change Your Brain Change Your Life. (New York, NY: Harmony Books, 1998), 354-355.