It’s a question we all ask ourselves – how do I keep my mind in good shape as I age?
Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, offers some great answers to this question in his new book: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives
In a recent Art Of Manliness episode, he talks about his book and shares the two essential ways to keep our minds sharp.
He debunks one common approach. On crossword puzzles, sudoku and brain training apps, he says, “there’s virtually no evidence that though those things work. If you do crossword puzzles, you simply get better at doing crossword puzzles. Now there is a small amount of evidence that doing crosswords or other word games help keep your word fluency going. But again, the evidence is thin.”
Levitin suggests that the idea that age brings mental decline is overblown in society, saying, “One misconception is that old age is a time of decline and debilitation, sadness, and irrelevance. It is for some, but for many it’s the best parts of their lives.”
On ageism and confirmation bias, he adds, “So if you already think that old people are decrepit and declining, and you see a few of them, those are the ones you notice and register, and you don’t notice all the exceptions to that. And in fact, in my experience, there are more oldsters who are doing well, than are not doing well”
The two key areas to keep our minds sharp, according to Levitin are:
1. Face to face social activity
We are a social species and social interaction kicks our minds into high gear.
Levitin says, “One way to keep your memory better is to keep your social circles active, and interact with new people. The reason for that is that interacting with others is about the most complex human activity we can do. It’s more complex than brain surgery, than being a rocket scientist, than solving Sudoku or crossword puzzles. Interacting in a meaningful way with real live people, not necessarily over the phone or Skype, sorry technology, that’s demanding, and that keeps the brain active.”
One thing we’ve found in our own research into retirement at Reset is that this period of change often brings new factors that can spark (usually negative) self-perpetuating cycles of behaviour. It seems obvious that if complex social interaction keeps the mind sharp that social withdrawal (which is common to people leaving formal employment) could have knock effects far beyond just the social interaction itself – like impacting mental clarity and confidence.
Levitin suggests simple solutions to this, such as partaking in charitable organizations, political causes, religious organizations or even book clubs. Essentially, we must work to ensure we find ourselves in rich social situations.
2. Physical movement, particularly navigating through nature.
His second tip will appeal more to the introverts amongst us. Physical movement, not so much exercise necessarily, but navigating our environment, and particularly nature where there are more variables, taps deep into our minds and basic survival mechanisms.
Levitin says, “The hippocampus evolved for place memory, for navigation. It didn’t evolve necessarily for remembering things like the pledge of allegiance, or Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, or lyrics to your favourite song. It evolved to help you navigate and find places and remember where the well and the fruit trees are.”
What’s interesting about both of these essential areas is that our use of personal technology like phones seems to conflict with them. Phones may connect us to our loved ones but virtual interaction doesn’t provide the richness of the real thing and likely reduces our face to face interactions. Curbing technology use is likely a good step to keeping our minds sharp.
Listen to the podcast interview here:
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