How to Grow your Brain

July 27, 2020

My mother instilled in me a lifelong love of learning, growing and expanding my mind and my skill sets, an approach described by the words Growth Mindset which have been recently popularised by Dr Carol Dwek's book; Mindset.

When I look at my bulging bookcases and my husband groans as he picks up yet another box of books when we move, I query the wisdom and value of this seemingly never slaked thirst for learning and considered what is driving me to do this; is it feeling that I am still not good enough, is it the fear of being left behind, or is it purely a desire to experience the joy and excitement of discovery of something new- again!!?

A number of years ago I attended the annual Mind & its Potential Conference put on by the Virayana Institute. What I learnt has given me validation plus convinced me of the critical importance of continued learning if I want to retain my mental faculties as I age.

At the beginning of my working life when in my nursing training, a good deal of our focus was on the psychology of the mind (the thinking bit), plus the physiology of the brain (the chemical interactions bit) and the anatomical physical shape and size of the brain.

In those days, it was believed the brain developed until we reached the age of 7, after which the foundations of learning were pretty well set, our brain had reached its capacity size and functionality wise until after the age of about 30, when we started to lose brain cells at a rate of knots and it was all downhill from there!

Well you’ll be pleased to know this has been proven to be wrong. Neuroscience in the 21st century has established that we continue to replace brain cells just as we replace the other cells in our bodies regularly. Is has also been demonstrated we have the ability to grow new neural pathways in our brain all our lives if we do the right things. This is named Neuroplasticity of the brain.  Wow, what a relief and BTW, the oldest person tested to be growing new neural pathways was 92 years old to date a few years ago, but is likely to happen til the day we die.

There are a number of ways to exercise the brain and activities which cause the brain to grow new pathways and even upsize, some of which are as follows:

  • Learn to juggle, learn a musical instrument, learn to sing – engage both sides of the brain
  • Learning a new language or two or three……
  • Think positive thoughts!!! (this generates Dopamine the feel good hormone which can actually prevent the brain from shrinking), negative thoughts on the other hand have been proven to shrink the brain. A great reason to think positive thoughts, yes?
  • Do increasingly complex crosswords, Sudoku or similar – this keeps the brain from settling into its comfort zone.

So what does this mean to HR and workplaces? 2 things spring to mind:

  1. Perhaps this may cause you to look at the ageing talent pool in a different way, if they have continued to be vibrant, involved, enjoyed learning and growing, stayed healthy and engaged, maybe their brains are bigger and more competent than yours!
  2. In the workplace environment do you mix up your activities and do things differently each time or do you use the old “tried and true” ways cause it’s easy and wonder why new ideas aren’t flowing as fast as you’d like. Perhaps you would all benefit from getting doing a task a different way to get those creative juices flowing and brain pathways pumping.

Growing your brain is going to be hard work and you have to practice for at least 15 minutes per day, but that challenge is exactly what we need to keep our brains active.

So, take a deep breath, try something new and realise you are investing in the future health and wellbeing of your brain, not to mention your quality of life.

Great reads: “Brain Power” by Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell; “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doige MD; “the woman who changed her brain” by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.