I want to get back to fitness and longevity for a bit. I’m working on a project about longevity so it’s a lazy decision for me.
The importance of doing to sharpen ourselves as we age can hardly be overstated. Do crosswords or Sudoku. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. But there is usually a missing piece in the advice offered and it’s the thing that tips the cart toward improvement rather than just maintenance. That missing part is that what you are doing should be hard. Ouch.
Take crosswords, which I enjoy. There are plenty of crosswords that I can complete in ten minutes without mistakes. They help maintain a level of mental acuity but they don’t improve my ability or mental state. To do that I need to form new neural connections. Neural connections are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. (This is why babies crawl before they walk. Crawling builds a scaffold of connections between brain and body that finally allows the child to move their legs and balance themselves with control.) How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard for us.
Let’s stick with crosswords. I can maintain the level of mental ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kind of puzzles over and over. I consider myself a Tuesday/Wednesday NYT puzzler. It’s kind of like running an eight minute mile. Some people think you’re fast and the local high school kid whacks you with a stick as he laps you. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better – and by better I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones then I have to do puzzles that make me wince. Make me see clues and answers from different perspectives. Make me think hard about who won Best Actress in1976 (Louise Fetcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.
Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity. Once I was going to sign up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but my thinking was that this was so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.
Wayne Dyer said that when he was a practicing therapist and people would come into his office complaining of depression he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument is that so much of our mental state is tied to our physical state and it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. I run a lot and read testimonials in every running magazine from people who run to ‘clear their head’ or to reorient thoughts. It sounds silly but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. Probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.
You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – heightens your experience and by definition improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but they whys. Why does it work this way? Why use it rather than another joint? If you cook learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.