I recently watched a TED talk by a French neuroscientist about brain cells. She discussed the idea that even as adults, we can continue to grow new brain cells and expand our minds, if only we stimulate our brains in the right way. It’s actually being discussed in a lot of podcasts and articles these days – people who are in their seventies and eighties but have brains that function as if they’re 25. It’s a new field of research but the general theory is – people who keep their brains active and constantly “growing” are most likely to have perfectly working brains at 80.
Think about this. It makes sense. When you are young, you’re learning all the time. You’re learning to eat, smell, talk to people. You go to school. Your brain is stimulated in every way – socially, intellectually, emotionally, physically. Even if the stuff you’re learning isn’t always interesting, you’re still testing your brain to understand new concepts, new ways of thinking. One of my math teachers even admitted that the stuff we were learning was in fact useless – we would probably never need it. He said the real purpose of school was to test our learning capacity, our intelligence. Can you learn Year 10 maths? Okay great. Now try Year 11. You passed? Now try Year 12. That was the idea. As kids, we needed to push our brains to grow.
This stopped as I got older. Once I left university, it was rare for me to learn new things with any regularity. When I worked as an accountant, we did the same thing every day. First year on the job? Do taxes. Second year? Taxes. Third year? More taxes. Can you remember a time in school where you did the exact same thing three years in a row?
Coming to think of it now, I even ate the same breakfast and lunch every day, so I could go through the entire work day thinking about my life as little as possible.
This backs up early research with super aging brains – that if we don’t use them, they die. In fact, the best advice they have for us at the moment is, if you want your brain to keep ticking well into your eighties and nineties, use it (a lot). Work really hard at something. Test it every day, like you did back in school.
The beauty of it is, we live in an age of unlimited information. And not just unlimited information, but unlimited free information. If you have Google, you can learn literally anything. And it works, you can feel it. When you read, or spend a lot of time struggling with something, like a language, your brain actually hurts, like it’s been lifting weights. Now I’m reminded that’s actually a good thing. We need that.
The problem is, not all of us can just start doing crazy interesting challenging jobs. If I had asked my boss to give me something really interesting and challenging, she just would’ve made me do ten tax returns instead of five. So what else can we do to stimulate and super age our brains?
Learn a new language
I actually think is the best thing you can do for your brain, because it hits you from so many different angles. Learning vocabulary tests your memory. Learning grammar tests your logic and understanding. It tests your ability to connect many of your senses and actions (reading, writing, listening, speaking). Plus, it’s hugely practical. In fact, our ability to speak and read and write is probably one of the most defining characteristics of being a human being.
How to do it:
You can use sites like Babbel or Duolingo, which are both free, you can use any number of free apps for specific languages. Usually when I land in a new country I just search “Learn insert language” in the App store and download one of the top free apps. Youtube is also a great place for free lessons. Once you’ve picked up some basic words and phrases, start watching foreign movies in your new language, or listen to your favourite movies with voiceovers, to mimic an immersion environment.
If you’re into hacks, this blog post has some good concepts for learning languages quickly. I’d say it’s more suited to experienced language learners but newbies will find some good tips in there too.
Pro tip: If you’re a Netflix junkie, listen to your favourite shows in voice over and/or with subtitles. Makes watching TV semi-productive.
Play a sport
Sports are amazing because they test your brain not only physically but also emotionally and intellectually. Understanding new rules, tactics, strategies, hand eye coordination, and also things like motivation, perseverance, mental toughness. Competitive sport multiplies these effects. Things like running and lifting weights are good but are repetitive and don’t test things like quick-thinking, reflexes and analysing different situations, so it’s good to mix it up. If you have any sort of physical disability, ‘mental’ sports like chess and poker are good brain trainers too.
How to do it:
Just join a club and start! Even social sport is beneficial.
Bonus points: Take up a sport you’ve never tried before in your life. You’ll be surprised what you might learn.
Learn to dance
Dancing is amazing because it’s social, fun, and it connects physical movement with music, which is great for brain stimulation. In fact, in Think & Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill identifies music as the fourth most potent stimuli to generate activity in the brain (in case you’re wondering, the first is sex, followed by love, followed by desire for fame and power).
Dancing is also great because it’s something you can learn either alone, with a partner, or with a group, making it possible for everyone, and you can literally learn how to do every single dance in the world on Youtube. It’s also really challenging, particularly if you’re not musically inclined, and to connect rhythm and music with steps, while coordinating with a partner or group, and also learning to improvise, is something that will certainly test you. The greatest dancers spend a lifetime mastering their craft.
How to do it:
I learn to dance at a proper studio, with a proper teacher – obviously this costs money. If that’s not an option but you still want to learn, you can learn choreography on Youtube, or many bars have free dancing nights with free classes where you can just show up and have a go – I sometimes do this while travelling.
Read books about whatever you want to learn
Elon Musk, the super genius that is basically taking over the planet, was once asked how he learned to build rocket ships and his answer was simple:
“I read books.”
The beauty about reading as an adult is, you get to choose what you read. In high school, I hated reading because they kept giving me stuff I wasn’t interested in. And of course nobody likes reading textbooks either, yet during my school years I must have read hundreds of them. Slowly, after a 10 year reading hiatus, I’ve started to slowly enjoy books again.
When you read a book, you are literally stuffing knowledge into your brain. It’s as if the author is just sitting there talking to you, telling you everything he knows. The kicker is, there’s a good chance the author is one of the richest/smartest/most interesting people in the world. You can learn anything in the world, and often you can learn it from some of the greatest minds in history. Just read a book.
How to do it:
Download the Kindle app on your phone and you have almost every book in the world available to you within 10 seconds. If you’re a voracious reader you could get Kindle Unlimited, which lets you read unlimited books for ten bucks a month (get a free trial here!), or if you can’t afford to drop any cash at all, join your local library. In fact you don’t even have to join, you can just sit in there and read all day for free. Knowledge is unlimited and everywhere.
Study something new
Upskilling is always important, but ask yourself, what do you really want to do? Because whatever it is, you can probably start learning it today, and you don’t need to go to a $20,000 per year college to do it. Like we said before, Elon Musk learned to build freaking rocket ships by reading books off Amazon (if you’re curious, the books were Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and International Guide To Space Launch Systems). Pretty gnarly huh.
So what do you want to learn? How to make video games? You can do a 70 hour course on Udemy for fifty bucks. In fact, you can learn pretty much anything on Udemy, like how to trade forex or how to take wedding photos. Or again, just find a book. My surfing teacher knows near damn everything about swell, wind patterns, moons and tides, wave dynamics, ocean currents, and I asked him if he studied all that somewhere. He nodded and when I asked him where, he said “the library”. I felt stupid. We often think that to learn something we need to get a certificate from some expensive school. We don’t. Free information is everywhere.
How to do it:
Learn a musical instrument
In a study at Northwestern, neuroscientists found that kids learning a musical instrument showed larger improvements in how their brains processed speech and had higher reading scores than their non-musical peers. Translation: Playing an instrument makes you smarter.
Remember how Napoleon Hill identified listening music as one of the strongest brain stimuli? When you’re the one actually creating the music, the effect multiplies. And not only does it test your brain to coordinate your ears, eyes and hands with rhythm and tune, it is also expressive, creative and recreational. Basically, instruments are awesome.
How to do it?
Udemy has classes, or you can learn to play guitar or piano for free on Yousician. There is also a ton of different teachers with free content on Youtube. Or do it the old fashioned way and just take classes. Or do it the really, really old fashioned way and just try and figure it out yourself.
Take on a super challenge
Since the best way to test your brain is to do something really hard you could try and, you know, do something really hard. Run a half marathon. Run a full marathon. Do a triathlon. An ironman. Lose 30 kilos. Double your personal best in the gym. Climb a really big mountain. Kayak down a really long river. Hitch hike across the country. Build a motorcycle. Write a book. Translate a book. Publish a research paper. Start a clothing label. Sail to an island. Make a movie. Paint a self portrait.
How to do it
- Decide what you want to do.
Google how to do it.
Prepare to do it.
This blog post on creating a system to achieve big goals is a great place to start.
Seven ways to expand your brain. All of them free. All of them you can start today.