December 8, 2014
The Australian
Ruth Ostrow

We don’t have to age or at least grow old as fast as we do. That’s the finding of researchers in the US, where a group of specially trained lab rats equivalent in our years to 60-year-olds became as young and healthy as their 20-year-old companions.

Although our bodies will inevitably decline, scientific evidence presented at the recent international Mind & Its Potential Conference in Sydney suggests that the process can be slowed down by several decades. The things that really matter to us — vitality, libido, memory, and brain power — don’t have to change much into our 70s and 80s. And how can this be achieved? Not through hormones, surgery, vitamins or stem cell replacement.

It’s all about neurogenesis, or our ability to grow new synapses and neurons in our brains well into old age, according to University of California neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who in Sydney shared advice on how to keep our brains young. “The King of Neuroplasticity”, Professor Merzenich, 72, says that when the brain is rejuvenated it also rejuvenates everything from our skin and organ function to capacity for pleasure and energy. The aim is to “fatten” the brain so the body doesn’t atrophy.

So how do we do this? Merzenich and other leading neuroscientists gave me their best tips for longevity. One of Merzenich’s revolutionary methods would have baby boomers and gen Xers laughing: the silly walk, a la John Cleese and Monty Python. Merzenich finds new and complicated ways to move every day to give his brain huge challenges. He says the brain loves to make decisions and solve problems, and it hates safe ways of doing things. To stay young, he says, don’t make things easy for the brain. Give it big surprises. Get out of the cave. Don’t say “I don’t do that.” Try it.

Exercise is fantastic for overall health, but to specifically grow the brain, the exercises can’t be predictable or routine. So add to the mix Rumba, Tango, gentle acrobatics, and yes, even a silly walk.

Merzenich was one of the stars of eminent psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge’s groundbreaking bestseller on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself. Doidge told me that “What fires together wires together”, and new synapses and pathways are forged constantly as long as the brain is used. With a bit of brain rewiring and practice, a pianist can become a concert pianist; a stroke victim can learn to talk and walk.

The bottom line, says Merzenich, is “use it or lose it”. He warns us to stop using a GPS and other gadgets for simple tasks. “Study road maps, and force yourself to remember where you’re going and the details around you. As primitive beings we survived by roaming the landscape. So listen and look around in a state of mindfulness.” Before sleep he spends five minutes in bed recalling the details he’s seen in the streets that day, in order to stimulate memory. He says to try and remember phone numbers and email addresses rather than using your mobile.

He advocates training the brain with games. Not a big fan of Sudoku or other problem-solving fads, Merzenich has a website of scientifically proven exercises., from Posit Science, was featured in the ABC documentary Redesign My Brain, in which Todd Sampson volunteered himself as a lab rat to test the science of brain plasticity. Sampson turned into somewhat of a genius before our eyes.

Merzenich also praises meditation, which according to experiments by Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices on the brain, opens pathways in unused areas of the mind. Merzenich says we should learn languages, go back to university or do some courses — but to leave our comfort zone. He says try complex subjects you might not be good at, such as maths.

I followed his advice and three years ago went back to university. Despite being a technophobe, I chose to study technical matters such as video production, camera usage, and operating an edit suite. I was often in tears. But I did well, and noticed that my brain improved in other areas of memory and competency. The theory is that if you develop one part of the brain, synapses grow elsewhere.

New hobbies can challenge your brain with enough tension to create small squirts of cortisol and noradrenaline. Unlike dangerous chronic stress that comes from worry, small hits of stress hormones are excellent for stimulating the mind. Perhaps birdwatch and learn the name of new species. Stay curious. Travel is great. After achieving a new skill, reward yourself. Self-praise clinches the lessons and rewires the brain. Positive feedback promotes good habits.

US psychiatrist Stuart Brown was recently in Australia talking about the importance of play in brain health. Activities such as volleyball, running into the sea and ballroom dancing have been shown to trigger parts of the brain associated with social connection and increased intelligence.

Brown first recognised the importance of play by discovering its absence in the life stories of murderers and sociopaths. His research led him to prove that when we play and laugh, we release not only dopamine, oxytocins and other reward neurochemicals but also create synaptic connections.

Social interaction is crucial for wellbeing, according to the “father of social neuroscience”, UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman. He says without love, relationships and community, the deterioration of our health is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day. Being with people helps us read facial signs, develop empathy and exercise our prefrontal cortex, which governs higher order functions. It was, and still is, crucial to our survival as a species. So turn off Facebook and go face-to-face.

Neuroscientists have proven that juggling increases thinking speed and one’s ability to focus. Michael J. Gelb, a respected creative thinker from the US, says that while juggling we increase our metacognition — the capacity to think about our thinking processes. This improves motor skills, spatial awareness and problem-solving capacity.

Most of us feel awkward trying new things, which is why we mostly don’t. Tal Ben Shahar, a prominent US expert in positive psychology, says we need to reframe our failures so we see them as “lessons”.

He believes we should not let fear make us shun new things. Developing comes from accepting our failures with grace. “Babies don’t just walk. They need to keep falling down, then they walk,” he reassures those of us who are embarking on a journey towards our full adult potential.

How to jump-start the grey matter

  • Find new ways to move or walk every day
  • Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Give the brain surprises, decisions and problems to solve
  • What fires together wires together. Talent is not important. Practice any skill for 10,000 hours and you’ll master it.
  • Stop using a GPS and contact book: memorise maps, phone numbers and email addresses
  • Do online exercises such as from Posit Science
  • Meditate for at least 20 minutes at a time, preferably morning and night
  • Study something you are not good at; take up hobbies
  • Read, read and read
  • Play and increase your social contact
  • Before going to sleep, for five minutes recall details of something like the house next door or a friend’s face
  • Juggle to increase motor skills and spatial awareness