Oh, the seductive lure of mental autopilot! Whether we realize it or not, much — perhaps even most — of our mental life occurs on autopilot, and we rely increasingly on autopilot as we age. Our mental autopilot is the product of our experience and it enables us to perform complex mental feats effortlessly and efficiently.
Whether you are a doctor treating a patient, a professor teaching students, or an engineer designing a machine, the odds are that a great deal of your professional activities — no matter how rigorous they may appear to an outside observer — are routine. You practice well-rehearsed professional skills smoothly and effortlessly. Most of the maladies diagnosed by an experienced physician on any given day are like the maladies encountered by the same doctor the day before. Most of the lectures given by a tenured professor this year are only slightly modified versions of the lectures given by the same professor the year before, and so on. Is there anything wrong with this?
Not for the patients and not for the students. They both benefit from the experience and expertise of the aging professionals in whose hands they have placed their health or their education. The mental efficiencies behind the smooth and precise performance by an experienced expert are the fruit of years of professional growth and accomplishment. But what may be good for an aging expert’s performance or for his clients is not so good for his own aging brain.
Recent neuroscience research has shown that the human brain is more amenable to change than was thought to be the case even a few decades ago. The brain’s capacity for change is sometimes referred to as “neuroplasticity.” Today we know that, contrary to the assumptions that had dominated neuroscience for decades, the brain retains its capacity for neuroplasticity throughout the human life span, even in advanced age.
Neuroplasticity is a major mechanism of the brain’s ability to enhance its performance, to protect itself against the detrimental effects of aging, and to repair itself following brain injury. This is accomplished through the ongoing growth of new small vessels providing blood supply to the brain, and new connections between nerve cells (synapses, and even new nerve cells) in certain parts of the brain. This is terrific news.
What makes the news even better is that neuroplasticity is, to a considerable degree, under environmental control. Both the extent of effects of neuroplasticity and the location in the brain that these effects are manifest depends to a significant degree on the nature of our mental activities. The effects of mental activities on the brain can be quite robust, changing its microstructure and even its gross neuroanatomy in observable, measurable ways. This has been demonstrated with a variety of research tools, including state-of-the art neuroimaging devices such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
There is a catch, however; in fact, three interrelated catches.
First, in order to be truly beneficial in stimulating the mechanisms of neuroplasticity, the mental activities have to be challenging.
They have to be difficult enough to be manageable but effortful. To benefit your brain, you need to do precisely that which your arsenal of mental autopilots allowed you to escape: strain your brain.