Tom Cowie
Brisbane Times
March 20, 2020

If only I had the time. It’s a common lament from those who never get around to that thing they’ve always wanted to learn, whether it’s juggling, cryptic crosswords, the guitar or the tango.

But now, confined to their homes because of the coronavirus crisis, some are taking the opportunity to finally master a skill they’ve been putting off.

With endless how-to videos on the internet offering ways to study remotely, neuroscience experts agree it is a good time to try something new and keep the brain focused.

Luke Chadwick, 37, has decided to use his newfound spare time to learn German, something he thinks will help with his start-up tech business, which has clients in Germany.

He’s been in self-isolation in Byron Bay in NSW since Sunday after flying back from Europe and has been using his spare time to take German classes with a tutor via Skype.

He couldn’t say much more than guten tag when he started but is hoping to know a lot more by the time the world comes out of lockdown, however long that is.

“I thought if I’m going to be all cooped up I’m going to double down on learning it,” he said.

It seems he’s not the only one.

Language app Duolingo reported a 25 per cent spike in new users this week in Australia, with most of the interest in learning Chinese and Japanese.

For others, it’s a chance to expand their repertoire on the dance floor. Tina Mu, 25, runs a website in her spare time on fun activities, such as silent disco tours.

The engineer from Kensington in inner-city Melbourne wants to be able to moonwalk by the time she comes out of containment. She’s improving but her last attempt in public looked like she was “rubbing dog poo on the floor”.

“I’m basically just looking at YouTube videos and trying to see how they do it because the best dancers out there are putting this stuff online for free,” she said.

“I haven’t had time before. Now I’ve got the time to moonwalk my heart out.”

Dr Loren Mowszowski, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Sydney, said that learning to dance, juggle, or speak a new language were all good ways of challenging the brain while in lockdown. She also pointed to scientifically tested brain training apps such as BrainHQ.

“That’s the essence of neuroplasticity, it’s doing something new, something to stimulate your mind in a novel way,” she said.

“And when we’re in isolation … that’s really a perfect opportunity to try a new task or activity.”

Learning can also help take the mind off a situation that is causing stress and anxiety, she said.

“It can be a really nice way to focus our attention and to direct mental energy to something that’s goal directed, that’s meaningful, and that’s enjoyable,” she said.

Dr Amit Lampit, a cognitive training expert from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, said it was important to keep the brain sharp without the stimulation of work.

A variety of activities would provide the most benefits, he said, rather than just say a single crossword.

Things to consider were thinking skills like memory, speed, planning, logic and language, he said.

“It’s like taking your brain to the gym,” he said.