Deepak Chopra’s fabulous work – ‘Ageless Body, Timeless Mind’, alludes to our innate ability to conquer the ageing process. In such eloquent terms, he highlights the power of our mind and the undeniable influence of our intention, attitude and beliefs.
Conceptually speaking, a ‘neuro – plastic’ brain serves and supports a young and healthy body. Here, ‘neuro’ means brain and ‘plasticity’ is flexibility or the ability to change. The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These cells are interconnected to each other by ‘neural pathways’. In scientific terms, the plasticity of our brain is the speed with which it creates new neural pathways and severs old ones. These pathways (or highways) are actual physical connections that exist inside our brains. Each pathway represents a habit, an attitude or a belief system. Inevitably, our habits (or pathways) determine our decisions and therefore our destiny. Brains that are continually engaged in this process of neural construction and deconstruction are active and thus produce healthy levels of endorphin, dopamine and oxytocin. These hormones facilitate wholesome cell renewal and healing, which then aids in maintaining a youthful body and a vigorous mind.
Each of our brains has the same ability to be neuro – plastic. What distinguishes us however, is our willingness to engage and activate this process i.e. regularly visit the ‘Brain Gym’.
The Brain Gym is a place to build new pathways and break the old ones. Both these activities are necessary for optimum plasticity. It is the construction and deconstruction zone. A place of revival, renewal and replenishment.
Here are some C’s on how to use YOUR Brain Gym.
Conquer a new language. Studies show that the learning of a new language, preferably one that is markedly different from your own, activates dormant areas of your brain. Practicing grammar, vocabulary and sentence formation in a new tongue helps to build new neural highways which are akin to building new brain muscles. The overall capacity and dynamism of the brain in enhanced. The feeling of confidence and accomplishment during and after the learning process feeds the body with endorphins, rejuvenates cells and fosters youth.
Make Change a habit. Do something that feels different, unusual or atypical to you. Give yourself an experience far different from anything that you’ve done before. Wear different clothes, eat a new kind of food, alter your hair style, change or move your furniture around, park your car in a different spot, try a new route to work, wear your watch in the opposite hand, brush your teeth or shave in a new way, bungee jump, scuba dive, paint a picture, participate in a debate, dance on the street, visit a museum, do things without a plan, laugh out loud for no apparent reason, etc. Notice how you feel resistant to some of these suggestions! In ancient China, the Tao Te Ching proclaimed, ‘Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow, whatever is rigid will wither and die’. Charles Darwin said that the survival of a species is not dependent on its physical strength, nor on its intelligence, but instead, on its ability to adapt to change. My wise mentor Basil Harris has often suggested, ‘the greatest ability you can develop is your adapt – ability’. Use some of these ideas to become resilient to change. Free yourself from ‘conditioned responses’. Might I suggest that the ideas you resist are the ones that challenge your neural pathways the most – and thus offer the best Brain Gym exercise – i.e. your ticket to youthfulness.
Converse with someone who is very different from you – culturally, philosophically, economically or idealogically. Ask questions, express interest and listen. Do this for at least an hour. Observe how they behave and believe. Relinquish your desire to judge, compare or adjudicate. Give up the need to conclude or rationalize. Just be an observer of this unique expression. Thought leader and best selling author Wayne Dyer suggests that we ‘let go’ of the need to give meaning and structure to everything. He suggests that we accept paradoxes, anomalies and incongruities as they are. Allow impressions to remain afloat in your mind without assigning them to a box! This is like doing yoga in your Brain Gym – flexing, relaxing and allowing… and staying young.
Communicate with a child, preferably one that is 1 to 3 years old. Notice the innocence, flexibility, resilience, dynamism …and truth. Children are impressionable and highly nuero – plastic. Re discover your own mould -ability through this interaction. Seek similarity between the child and you. Withdraw from the need to behave as an adult. Permit emotions to surface as they do. Encourage your natural expression to take effect. Allow any realization to enlighten you. Re visit old neural pathways in your own brain… ones that have been dormant since you were a child and Re build these pathways in your Brain Gym. Welcome again to the field of youth.
Curiosity & Creativity. Children are creative because they are curious. They are also creative because they are not afraid to fail and not embarrassed to be proven wrong. The best expression of curiosity is asking questions. Kids tend to ask questions relentlessly. Sometimes they don’t even care what the response is. It’s almost as if the question is merely an expression of who they really are rather than a definitive desire to seek clarity. In his book, ‘How Successful People Think’, leadership guru John Maxwell encourages question based thinking to stimulate creativity. He suggests questions like: Why must it be done this way? What is the root problem? What are the underlying issues? What does this remind me of? What is the opposite of this? What metaphor or symbol helps explain it? Why is it important? What’s the hardest and most expensive way to do it? Who has a different perspective on this? What happens if we don’t do it at all? And here’s a final question to you: Are you afraid that you won’t find the answer, or are you afraid that you will? Dare to ask and you are now engaged in a kaleidoscope of activity in your Brain Gym – building new pathways, demolishing old ones and bathing in the fountain of youth.
Curves, colors and chimes. Straight lines represent structure and rigidity – the antithesis of plasticity. World renowned popular psychology author, Tony Buzan espouses the use of ‘Mind Maps’ for any thinking or problem scenario. He asserts that neural pathways are curvy and rounded & thus encourages us to change from linear to random ideation. When reading or writing, resist the need to follow a structure or a sequence. Our unconscious mind is perfectly equipped to absorb the haphazard and indiscriminate. Notice again your resistance to this idea – aha a heavy bench press in your Brain Gym! Your opposition to abandon this pattern is almost an addiction to stringency, isn’t it? Leadership trainer and entrepreneur Susan Castle suggests that we insert curvy objects into our environment, as this activates the full capacity of our unconscious mind. Furniture, curios, paintings, etc – look for ones with curves and twists.
Extend the same principle to colors. Study the effect of color on your mood. Psychologist Kendra Cherry advocates the power of color in therapy. She outlines how different colors stimulate different emotions and thus the production of different neuro chemicals that stimulate healing, recovery and youth. Best selling spiritual author Deepak Chopra suggests that for optimal health, we regularly eat foods from all the colours of the rainbow. For best neural plasticity, consider multi colored curtains, walls, furniture, paintings, etc – and then consider changing the colors intermittently. Afraid of what others might think? A.k.a. ‘Nerual Resistance’. Overcome it and acquire youth!
Experiment with chimes. The internet is inundated with pleasing sound bytes and jingles. Play with diversity until you find sounds that please your mind. Change tunes at a whim and allow yourself to be immersed whenever you so desire. You may find that you spontaneously break into ‘moves and motions’ with certain sounds. That can be your piece of physical exercise. And of course, new neural pathways are formed, old ones demolished – Brain Gym and youth for you!
Calm and quiet. Study after study shows the positive effects of meditation on the human brain. Researchers at UCLA took MRI scans of 100 people — half meditators and half non-meditators. They were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing). In a study published in ‘Frontiers in Human Neuroscience’ in February of 2012, they shared that, the more years a person had been meditating, the more gyrification their MRIs revealed. Other studies show that regular meditators tend to exhibit a biological age that is 10 to 20 years less than their chronological age. Meditation can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. If you are a first timer, just try to sit quietly for 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 10, then 20… and so on. Some days are better than others. On occasion, you may be inspired to meditate for a whole hour and at other times, you can barely get by with one minute. Let yourself take as much time as you need to develop the habit. Author and speaker Eckhart Tolle espouses a great way to meditate as bringing your attention the present moment – what you’re seeing, hearing and feeling in the now. Gently and consistently bring your mind away from the past and the future into the present. Avoid a mental tussle. Lead your mind into the present with tenderness and caress. Mediation is akin to a complete circuit Brain Gym workout – and probably the closest thing to an elixir for ageing.
Rhonda Byrne, best – selling author of the book ‘The Secret’, said, ‘What you think about and thank about, you bring about’. Develop a Culture of Gratitude. Gratitude promotes feelings of enjoyment and optimism. In this state, the pituitary gland in our brain releases happy hormones that restore, rebuild and repair cells and tissues – reflecting energy and youth.
Michael Pritchard is an acclaimed keynote speaker praised by the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Time Magazine. He said, ‘You don’t stop laughing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop laughing’. So Chuckle more, and chuckle more often.
Cast away your disempowering beliefs. The ancient Indian philosopher Adi Shankara said ‘People grow old and die because they see other people grow old and die’. We are conditioned by our environment to abide by norms such as ’65 is the retirement age’ or ‘it is normal for cholesterol to increase as we age’. In the words of Norma Cousins (a political journalist and world peace advocate), ‘Belief creates Biology’. Break free of unsupportive beliefs and welcome youth.
Standup comedian Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones said, ‘Five years from now you will be a product of the books you read and the Company you keep’. Surround yourself with gossip mongers, nay sayers and scandal peddlers – and literally watch your skin sag with the burden of old age! Hang around with optimists, and you will enjoy a dependable source of youth.
Feel a sense of Connectedness with at least one person. Have a friend who you can talk to –someone who listens. Intermittently indulge in acts of social connectedness. Talk, play, eat and pray with another. The more you open up your heart to others, the less your heart suffers! A fairly recent adage says, ‘ it is healthier to drink beer with a friend, than it is to eat salad alone’.
Larry Scherwitz, a University of California psychologist says about Compassion, ‘Listen with regard when others talk. Give your time and energy to others; let others have their way; do things for reasons other than furthering your own needs.’ Chopra suggests that empathy and kindness contributes to our sense of purpose and well being which in turn has a quantifiable effect on both our biological and psychological age. By nurturing your ‘inner life’, you defeat ageing at its source.
In the book of proverbs, the Bible says, ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. Your thinking shapes your destiny. So, control your thinking, and control your life.
(Arjun Aiyar is a corporate trainer, executive coach and motivational speaker based in Dubai. His organization caters to corporates and individuals by providing training and coaching in soft skills and behavioral areas. Learn more about Arjun’s business on www.stepupuae.com or read his other articles on his personal blog www.trainingindubai.wordpress.com )