increasing brain power

Snow Birding

We are hunkered down here in the midwest, heeding weather forecasters who predict another barrage of snow on top of the storm that ushered in 2014 earlier this week. But it was sunny and bright during the early part of the day, and we walked down our frozen street wearing the unlikely combination of sunglasses and earmuffs. Between the holidays and two big snowstorms back to back, I’ve found myself with a totally unprecedented amount of quiet time. Is there anything I like better than quiet time?

Not much.

Of course I can always find ways to keep busy. I’m surrounded by books, I have hundreds of movies and TV shows at my disposal (thank you, Netflix, Amazon, and TiVo). I always have the Book Project to fall back on should I find myself bored. (ha!)

carolina_chickadee_4But as snow falls gently and steadily outside the window, I’m content to sit in my chair, my hands wrapped around a steaming mugful of tea, and watch the chickadees and goldfinch flocking to the feeders. My interest in birds is a new one, and because there are so many birders in our neighborhood who feed and water them regularly, there is a large assortment always available for observation.

A friend sent me an interesting article about chickadees - apparently their little birdbrains physically expand by 30 % every winter to accommodate memory storage of all the places they’ve hidden gathered seeds during the fall. When spring comes, their brains “shrink” back to normal size. "They grow more brain when they need to remember things; then shrink that brain when the "remembering" season ends."

As recently as 1994, scientists did not believe this was possible - in birdbrains, let alone in human brains. But guess what? Homo sapien brains can expand too. Every time we learn something new, we grow brain cells.

Learn enough, and the concept of big-headedness will be more than metaphorical.

That’s kind of comforting, isn’t it? Especially when you’ve reached the age where recalling the spot you left your coffee mug, book, and reading glasses can lead you on an hour long wild goose chase through the house.

So yes, bird (and presumably all mammals) can grow brain mass and power. But it’s the second part of that sentence which really caught my attention.

That their brain shrinks when the remembering season ends.

Sometimes it seems like old age marks the end of the remembering season. Especially when folks become infirm and  have to move out of their homes and into care giving environments. Although they might provide “memory-stimulating” activities, it seems like they're really just false approximations of the real-life events our brains are designed to work with.

Even at my stage of life, I can sometimes feel my brain stultifying (especially after too many hours on Facebook!) I really want to stay firmly rooted in the remembering season. That’s another reason why I love reading, writing, and playing music  - those activities are the nuts and seeds I gather all year round, expanding my brain cells with every page written and read, every note played.



We're Getting Smarter, People!

Crossword puzzles, sudoko, aerobic exercise, fish oil...for years, baby boomers and seniors have been hearing about the benefits of these things in helping us avoid dementia, Alzheimer's and the general memory loss that accompanies aging. In her cover article for a recent issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley has even better news. She writes of 31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012, ways we can not only improve our memory, but boost our overall IQ as much as 20 points.

The really good news about these findings? Nearly all the methods of getting smarter are easy, enjoyable, and cheap. How often do you see those three words in a sentence to describe anything these days??

Of the 31 ways, I was happy to note that many of them are things I already do (drink coffee, eat dark chocolate, play musical instruments, get a good amount of sleep, eat yogurt, drink lots of water) or things I'd like to do (learn a language, visit art museums, go to literary festivals, join a knitting circle, dance). One of the recommendations I know I'll never do (play violent videos games- but hey, that's good news for my son, and maybe why he's a genius. And I thought it was because of my stellar parenting techniques!) These things all look like so much fun, I'm only half surprised they didn't list sports betting as a way to get smarter.

Begley says one of the biggest detriments to becoming smarter is lack of attention. And one the major reasons we've all become a little attention deficit - you guessed it. Technology drains our focus in a hundred ways.  Hence another way to get smarter - toss the Smartphone in the garbage, and get outside and play  games like soccer.

The article accompanying Begley's list is well worth reading, as she delves into some of the neuropsychological reasons the brain either gets smarter (or not) over time. Because just as brain power and intelligence can increase during our lifespan, so can they decrease without the proper care and feeding.

And none of us wants that to happen.

Last week at bell rehearsal I was talking with my stand partner about the article. We've been working on some particularly difficult music, requiring us to come up with some very creative bell changing options. As we discussed ways to get through a particularly difficult passage, we sipped coffee and nibbled on some of the ever-present chocolate squares. "

"Look at this," I told Darcie. "We're getting smarter every minute!"

That's the way to play it.