Why constant learning is important and what it does to your brain

We typically think of school age as learning and all that follows, as something else. That ‘something else’ is the honing of more or less repetitive tasks that make up our lives. And as we increasingly enjoy the pleasure of getting better at them, we tend to spend less and less time acquiring new activities, new hobbies, new usable knowledge.

The usable knowledge is the kind to later apply to make something of your own, to occupy yourself with or to create a new life pattern, a new activity with new tasks for you to get increasingly better at it.

In simpler terms, it is constant-learning and it is one of the most important ingredients for a healthy mind.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo

the brain garden

Our brains are designed like a garden with an integrated gardener. And [s]he’s great at it. The branches that wilt away are pruned and they disappear. Synaptic connections disappear and the cognitive skills that we spent so much time acquiring in our youth go out one by one with the yard waste to the curb. That is if we don’t do anything about it.

We give time to work, family, fun, exercise and nutrition, yet we’re not quite there in allowing time for our brain garden.

As science increasingly shows us how constant learning is closely intertwined to our wellbeing, we need not only to be doing it but to figure out how to. How to find new passions, how to always learn, how to fit it into the busy days. That was not always so and we all had a time when this was happening without so much effort.

Photo by Johann Walter Bantz

the early days

Oh! the days of high school as I remember! The pain of getting up early, clenched to the unbeatable smell of misty mornings, the crispiness of uniforms [no, not of private schools but of the Eastern block communist system of imposed equality], getting ready with excruciating attention to every strand of hair and bit of mascara – a way of getting ready that I rarely had time to follow in the post-school years after.

What the morning rituals with their peculiarities do at that age is ease one’s mind into the day in a pleasant and enjoyable way. A sort of re-set. It prepared me to best absorb what it is to follow, my family, the city, the food, chats with friends, school courses, emotions and learning.

The learning part in those years was different for every single one of us. From diligent students, to the passionate ones, from the smart ones that just braze thru unencumbered to the ones that struggle, from the ones that absolutely don’t care to the ones that bear through it against their will.

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passion above all else

Out of all, the passionate ones proved to be the lucky ones because they are genetically induced prisoners to their own curiosity, a fuelled power unlike others that keeps a brain perpetually stimulated and active. All the rest of [you] [us] have to work at it. And [we] [they] definitely should.

You could say that school years are the expansive years and the ones after, tend for many of us, to be reductionists. We reduce what we do more and more, we do it better and better, and do not concern ourselves with trying what we don’t know or know little about

And that is exactly what would help the gardener build a beautiful garden. Every time you learn something new, the brain is changing it’s structure, it increases synapses between your neutrons, it flourishes, information travels faster and your brain grows beautifully.

Learning is key at slowing down brain ageing. This is now a fact.

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the nun study

There is an interesting study done on nuns in a monastery, the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota. Researchers studied sentence structures that nuns wrote in an essay before entering the convent and then again, looked at those nuns’ cognitive functions at around the 65-year mark. This is not all. During this time the nuns had their genes analyzed and their strength and balance measured. Their memory has been periodically tested on world recall and counting and their cognitive ability was measured in many ways. As some of them have died, their brains were removed, placed in plastic and shipped off and analyzed.

This was the Nun Study. It is one of the most innovative and insightful studies in brain ageing and it is currently used in Alzheimer’s research.

Photo by Victor Malyushev

What they found out is that the ones that had some of the most complex sentence structures ranked highest in cognitive functions. On a side note to the scope of this study: another interesting and very important finding was that optimism had something to do with it as well, and the most optimistic ones also ranked higher. Thus one can reasonably conclude that those who believed in stimulating activities for the brain helped slow down mental ageing. Here is one for the thinkers!!

Just to be clear: cognitive functions are not measures of intellect, but the functions and abilities of the brain. By keeping your mind active, you are building an immune system for your brain that literally fights against ageing.

That’s why many that retire without activities that keep their mind alive and let themselves loosely do nothing, they basically retire their gardener. And with [s]he gone, the garden dies.

Photo by Esther Ann

just do it

So how can we do it? First of all, we have to want it. Don’t imprison your mind.

Finding what you want to keep learning is no easy task. The more we know the more we’re bored by things and fewer things make us tick. A good start is to focus on those that do. To go beyond enjoyment and learn about what you enjoy. Get good at it, and share it with others. Make it your passion and give your time to it.

Start small and redesign your morning, then your day as you allow a bit of learning to sip in. Your plastic brain will do the rest before it gets wrapped in plastic and shipped off.

Its excitement at getting new information will make it process it faster, you’ll remember better and stay sharp. That’s the only way Blue zones are for you, otherwise why bother?

Photo by Emiliano Fanti

Stay tuned for the next chapter on brain matters: how a positive emotional outlook early in life can give you a long life.

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