Sorry to say, our brains naturally start slowing down at the cruelly young age of 30 (yes, 30). It used to be thought that this couldn’t be helped, but a barrage of new studies shows that people of any age can train their brains to be faster and, in effect, younger. “Your brain is a learning machine,” says neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. Given the right tools, we can train our brains to act like they did when we were younger. All it requires is dedicated practice: exercises for the mind.
Merzenich has recently developed a computer-based training regimen that is designed to speed up how the brain processes information (positscience.com). Since much of the data we receive comes through speech, the Brain Fitness Program works with language and hearing to improve both speed and accuracy. Over the course of your training, the program starts asking you to distinguish sounds (between “dog” and “bog”, for instance) at an increasingly faster rate. It’s a bit like a tennis coach, says Merzenich, shooting balls at you faster and faster over the course of the summer to keep you challenged. Though you may have started out slow, after a few weeks of this you become pretty nimble.
Similarly, Nintendo was inspired by the research of a Japanese doctor to develop a handheld game called Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, which has sold more than two million copies in Japan. An increasing number of reputable scientific studies suggest programs like Merzenich’s could help slow down typical brain ageing, or even treat dementia. The biggest finding in brain research in the last ten years is that the brain at any age is highly adaptable – “plastic”, as neurologists put it. If you ask your brain to learn, it will learn. And it may speed up in the process.
To keep your brain young and supple, you can purchase software like Merzenich’s, or you can do one of a million new activities that challenge and excite you: playing table tennis or bridge, doing jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language, taking accordion lessons, building a model aeroplane, discovering the subtleties of brewing and, yes, perhaps even relearning differential calculus.
“Anything that closely engages your focus and is strongly rewarding,” says Merzenich, will kick your brain into learning mode and necessarily notch it up. For his part, Merzenich, 64, has “4000 hobbies”, including woodwork and a vineyard.