by Lynn S. Schwebach
Neuroscientists who study the brain, learning, and creativity know the importance of experience. They have studied the effects of activities such as traveling, learning a new language, solving a crossword puzzle, and playing video games. More specifically, they have studied the effects of these activities on the brain.
Every new, stimulating experience requires learning, and therefore changes the brain. As new sensations or ideas enter the brain, they are converted into electrical signals, signals that split off into numerous different pathways. When it’s truly a novel idea and an established pathway doesn’t exist, the brain creates one. It’s the forming of these new pathways, and the enhancement of existing ones that makes the brain amazingly plastic. The new pathways simply connect neurons to other neurons.
A Good Type of Plastic
Plasticity means the ability to change, which creativity and learning facilitate. And researchers tell us that experiences are what form the brain’s circuitry. Exposure to novelty creates new circuits and synapses. While this is especially critical for the developing brains of infants and children, this process continues throughout an individual’s life.
So while I have not written a blog post for a month, I have an excuse. I traveled and I grew my brain. I didn’t leave the country, but I went to New York City where I endeavored to figure out the subway system, ventured into neighborhoods I had never been, and tried foods I had never eaten. I walked over the historic Brooklyn Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. I then took an Amtrak train from NYC to Baltimore, something I have never done before and I did it on my own, navigating the mammoth Penn Station in Manhattan. I met my husband and son in Maryland where we settled my son into his new apartment, and then visited Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian museums, and Annapolis. The East coast is like a foreign country to me, and it was a maze of train stops, directions to tourist stops, and encounters with Uber and Lyft and a third floor AirBnB room that was very cheap but also a bit of a trial. I survived, and dare I say, thrived.
At the National Archives Museum in D.C., I viewed the original Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. (These original documents under glass are worth the trip to D.C.) In the museum’s bookstore, I bought a book on the U.S. Constitution, and as I read, I realized how much I don’t know or have forgotten about most important document of our country.
In Annapolis, I saw some of the oldest homes in the country, a tavern where George Washington danced as a young man, and a building where Benjamin Franklin held weekly meetings called the Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club. The purpose of the Club was mutual self-improvement and discovering ways to help others in their communities. In other words, education and charity was its charter. Our historical tour guide told us that the Leather Apron Club still meets today.
Try a Dance Class
Traveling is expensive, but with options like AirBnB and VRBO, ( see my article, Become a Traveler Not A Tourist) travel is more affordable. But psychologists tell us that leaving your community isn’t the only way to grow your brain. Technology gives us numerous opportunities today—from video games to free, online classes offered by top universities through sites like Coursera and edX. Libraries have free programs. And engaging in activities like Salsa dancing or going to an Escape room exercise your neural circuits in productive ways.
According to the Psychology Today article “Build a Better Brain” by Beth Livermore, neuroscientific investigations into how experience grows more brain circuits offers positive news to all individuals: “These findings suggest you can essentially train your brain to collate more information faster, and access it quicker an better. And under the right conditions of stimulation, you can grow yourself a brain that will keep up with your information needs – perhaps even exceed them.”
And what educators and researchers also report is that these learning experiences aren’t only found within books (although books are essential too!). From joining a new dance class to plunging oneself into the depths of a strenuous hike in the mountains, all new activities will make the human brain grow and develop in ways that only these adventures exact.
Perhaps most importantly, meeting new people, traveling to places you have never been, and talking with individuals from different ethnicities, races, genders and income levels affects your heart. It grows. It expands. It circulates blood that contains fresh hemoglobin to your brain. To me, that is a life worth exploring.