Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote a fascinating article for The New York Times about a study of “superagers.” Superagers are people whose biological age is more than 80 but who are no different from 25-year-olds in brain functions such as memory and concentration.
What areas of the brains of superagers are activated more than those of ordinary seniors? Research indicates that the areas that handle emotion or sentiment — not those involved with cognition or thinking — are the ones that are most activated, contradicting what common sense would have us expect. What can you do, then, to keep these areas of your brain as active as when we were young? “Keep doing difficult tasks, whether mental or physical,” Barrett suggests.
A high level of activity in these areas of your brain causes you to feel negative emotions such as tiredness and frustration. These are the feelings we get when we wrestle with a difficult math problem or push ourselves to our physical limits during exercise. You may develop uncomfortable weariness of body and mind when you have to focus intensely mentally, but you can develop your mental muscles to give yourself a sharper memory and more powerful focus.
I’m glad whenever I come across such articles, because it seems that the convictions I’ve developed through my own experiences are being supported by scientific research. Living a comfortable, easy, worry-free life isn’t what’s best for brain health. For the health of your brain, you need to raise its workload. It’s important not to leave your brain in its “default state” — that is, doing what it’s always done — but instead constantly give it new tasks and stimulation.
Usually, once they’re old, people don’t stimulate their brains much. From your brain’s perspective, it’s as if its boss doesn’t inspire your brain to work hard. A basic principle of your brain’s operation is that it improves when stimulated — and declines without stimulation. Hopes and dreams are the greatest stimuli we can give our brains. Our brains are highly active when our lives have purpose, direction, and plans.
Older people can no longer use age as an excuse — claiming that a “rusty” brain keeps them from doing or learning something new. Our brains are able to learn until the final moments of our lives.
However, learning doesn’t happen smoothly without repetition and practice — no matter how flexible or good at learning our brains may be. We must have the will to keep experiencing and learning new things — and we must work through the irritating repetition and difficulties, which we often face in the process of learning. We need to remember that the decades we’re given after we retire, provide us with plenty of time to achieve something through constant learning and training — even things that we have never done before.
This passage is adapted from Ilchi Lee’s “I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years: The Ancient Secret to Longevity, Vitality, and Life Transformation.”