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Aging and Technology Newsletter (June 2011): Work Your Brain

Aging and Technology Newsletter (June 2011)

Easy Ways to Improve Your Brain

This may be the most important fact you learn today – you can improve your brain by using your non-dominant hand. When you shelve books, check out clients, empty boxes, or enter data into your system, use your left hand (right if your left is dominant). At home, comb your hair, brush your teeth, vacuum the floor, or fill out your crossword puzzles with the non-dominant hand. At work and at home, use your non-dominant hand to operate your computer mouse/mouse pad. Not just once, but for days on end until the left hand works as well as the right when you do these particular tasks. Why? Because you want to give your brain a workout; you want it to begin forming new networks.

A typical human brain has the ability to continually change shape and rewire itself. It has over 100 billion neurons, which form and reform one thousand trillion connections (networks). New research has shown this process continues into our 70’s, assuming we continue to challenge our brains. This amazing plasticity is enhanced whenever something “novel” becomes a part of our routine – at least until it becomes routine, then it is time to look for something else. In addition, improving fine motor skills that necessitate hand/eye coordination improves our brains’ cognitive processes. By combining the two (new experiences and enhancing fine motor skills) we give our brains a great workout, and our brains reward us by creating new neurons and network connections that improve brain health.

We’ve heard, again and again, what we should do:

  • Avoid stress, learn how to meditate, how to visualize happy events/places, and breathe deeply.
  • Select nutritious meals, eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, cut down on the volume of food we consume, keep a record of the food we eat, reduce fat intake, etc.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week.
  • Expand social networks, talk to family/friends daily, join a book club for social interaction, etc.
  • Take on new hobbies – learn a new language, learn how to paint or play a musical instrument, learn to dance, take up gardening, enroll in cooking or writing classes, etc.
  • Sleep well, at least 6-8 hours a day.

Mostly, we choose not to follow this advice. Because we are too busy, or it’s too hard, or we simply don’t want to commit to something “new,” or are satisfied with ourselves, we ignore that advice and continue to lead routine lives with set, comfortable patterns. However, it appears that doing more of a “routine” good thing, even when it make us “expert” in a field, at best keeps our brains at status quo, at worst precipitates cognitive decline.

The time and inconvenience required to enrich our brains by using our non-dominant hand in “new” “novel” ways are relatively minor. It’s actually fascinating to see that our bodies are so engrained in habits that making even small changes become a challenge. Begin vacuuming with your left hand and note how unintentionally you revert to the right. Toss a ball to your child or grandchild with your left hand and then try catching with that same hand and note how your brain automatically encourages you to reach with the dominant hand. Use your non-dominant hand to color with your child or grandchild and share the joy of staying within the lines.

Do avoid beginning with action that may put you at risk – this is not the time to learn to cut vegetables with your non-dominant hand or to shave or to drive with it.

Second best tip of the day: Bring out the inner child -- laugh often. To switch buttons on your mouse to a left-handed configuration, go to Start>Control Panel , “Printers and Other Hardware” (in category view), then select Mouse . Go to “Button Actions” and choose the Left button action to “Right Click” and the Right button action to “Left Click“.