“Starting and Ending the Day”
All of us have our morning rituals to get us quickly and “mindlessly” out the door. These set routines allow the brain to go on automatic pilot and be more efficient. And at bedtime, when we need to wind down from a day of mental and physical exertion, routines are similarly comforting.”
“Because routines are so ingrained in our mornings and evenings, they’re ideal times to inject a bit of novelty to awaken new brain circuits.”
“To change your usual morning olfactory association—waking to the smell of freshly brewed coffee—wake up to something different—vanilla, citrus, peppermint, or rosemary.
Keep an extract of your favorite aroma in an airtight container on your bedside table for a week and release it when you first awaken, and then again as you bathe and dress.
Odds are you can’t remember specifically when you “learned” to associate the smell of coffee with the start of a day. By consistently linking a new odor with your morning routine, you are activating new neural pathways.”
“Locate the taps and adjust the temperature and flow using just your tactile senses. (Make sure your balance is good before you try this and use common sense to avoid burning or injury.) In the shower locate all necessary props by feel, then wash, shave, and so on, with your eyes shut. Your hands will probably notice varied textures of your own body you aren’t aware of when you are “looking.”
“Variation 2: Combine Exercises #2 and #4 by laying out your wardrobe the night before (or have someone lay it out for you). Then with your eyes closed, use only tactile associations to distinguish and put on pants, dress, socks, or panty hose, etc.”
“Brush your teeth with your non dominant hand (including opening the tube and applying toothpaste). You can substitute any morning activity—styling your hair, shaving, applying makeup, buttoning clothes, putting in cuff links, eating, or using the TV remote.
This exercise requires you to use the opposite side of your brain instead of the side you normally use. Consequently, all those circuits, connections, and brain areas involved in using your dominant hand are inactive, while their counterparts on the other side of your brain are suddenly required to direct a set of behaviours in which they usually don’t participate. Research has shown that this type of exercise can result in a rapid and substantial expansion of circuits in the parts of the cortex that control and process tactile information from the hand.”
“Variation: Use only one hand to do tasks like buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, or getting dressed. For a real workout, try using just your non dominant hand.
Another exercise that associates unusual sensory and motor pathways in your cortex with a routine activity is to use your feet to put your socks and underwear in the laundry basket or pick out your shoes for the day.”
Without looking, choose clothing, shoes, and so on, with matching or contrasting textures. For example, make it a silky, smooth day or a rough, nubby day. Use not only your fingers but also your cheeks, lips, and even your feet—they’re all packed with receptors for fine touch.
Extensive practice using the fingers to make fine distinctions between objects or textures causes expansion and rewiring of the brain areas involved in touch. This has been observed in monkeys trained to use their fingers to get food and in brain imaging experiments in blind human Braille readers.”
Wear earplugs when you join the family for breakfast and experience the world without sound.
Has your spouse ever complained that you are only “half-listening”? If you’re in the middle of a morning routine, it’s probably true. By virtue of ingrained routines, your brain has a pretty good idea of what to expect each morning, so only a few words are enough for you to follow a sentence. And, engrossed in a newspaper or listening to the radio, you “tune out” most other sensory inputs. Blocking a major sensory route by wearing earplugs forces you to use other cues to accomplish even simple tasks like knowing when the toast is done or passing the sugar bowl.
We wouldn’t recommend trying all these things on the same morning, but do incorporate one or two of the following:
Vary the order in which you do your normal routine (e.g., get dressed after breakfast).
If a bagel and coffee is your daily fare, try something else like hot oatmeal and herbal tea.
Change the setting on your radio alarm or tune into a morning TV program you never watch same Street, for example, may arouse the brain to notice how much of what you take for granted is explored in depth by children.
Walk the dog on a new route. (Yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks.)
Brain imaging studies show that novel tasks activate large areas of the cortex, indicating increased levels of brain activity in several distinct areas. This activity declined when the task had become routine and automatic. Much greater “brain power” is exerted for novel verses automatic (rote) tasks.
At the end of the day, when you want to wind down, try something relaxing and Neurobic, such as a warm bath. Use a variety of sensory stimuli—aromatic bath oils and soaps, sponges, loofah, body scrubs, candlelight, champagne or tea, music, plush towels, and moisturizer. Luxuriate in a cavalcade of scents, textures, and lighting to create linkages between old and new associations.
“Certain odors evoke distinct moods (alertness, calmness, etc.) in many people. In a Neurobic bath, simply by pairing a specific odor and/or music with an enjoyable, relaxing activity, you form a useful stress-relieving association that can be tapped simply by smelling the aroma or hearing the melody again.”
Read aloud with your partner. Alternate the roles of reader and listener. It may be a slow way to get through a book, but it’s a good way to spend quality time and gives you something to discuss other than your day at work.
When we read aloud or listen to someone reading, we use very different brain circuits than when we read silently. One of the earliest demonstrations of brain imaging clearly showed three distinct brain regions lighting up when the same word was read, spoken, or heard. For example, listening to words activated two distinct areas in the left and right hemispheres of the cortex, while speaking words activated the motor cortex on both sides of the brain as well as another part of the brain called the cerebellum. Just looking at words activated only one area of the cortex in the left hemisphere.”
“We use mental maps to navigate through our daily lives. By middle age, we’ve created hundreds of these maps and can readily recall the layout of rooms in houses where we’ve lived, street grids in towns, interstate highway networks, and the relationships of countries and continents to each other. Because losing one’s sense of place is confusing, or even frightening, the brain devotes a lot of processing power to forming and interpreting these mental maps.
Early Polynesian sailors didn’t have AAA TripTiks or global positioning systems.
They navigated the Pacific by paying attention to multi sensory cues subtle changes in ocean waves, the smell of the sea, the types of seaweed drifting by, and the feel and direction of the wind. In short, these early explorers had available all the ingredients for Neurobic exercise: an important task, the use of all their senses, and novel associations! Today, the opportunities to exercise our brain by exploring uncharted seas are limited. Most days, our visuospatial abilities are called upon to do something much more ordinary—the daily commute.”
“Unfortunately, the commute is about as far from Neurobic exercise as you can get. It’s predictable, routine, and brain-numbing. We’ve all had the experience of getting to work and having almost no recollection of how we got there. Most of the ride is spent encased in a cocoonlike environment, shielding us from the sights, sounds, and smells of the outside world, and often from other people as well.
But with a little planning and rethinking, your commuting time can be changed from a passive, mindless activity to one that strengthens the brain. Here are some ideas on how to transform your daily trip into a Neurobic workout.”
If you drive to work, enter and get ready to start the car with your eyes closed. Using only your sense of touch and spatial memory, find the correct key on your key chain, unlock the car door, slide into the seat, buckle your seatbelt, insert the key into the ignition, and locate familiar controls like the radio and windshield wipers.
Just as in the Jane example, under What Happens in the Brain with Neurobics, your tactile sense triggers a spatial memory of where things are via rarely used sets of brain pathways. Closing your eyes also opens up opportunities to form additional associations—like the detailed feel of your keys or the cold steel of the seat-belt buckle—that are suppressed when you rely solely on sight.”
Take a different route to work. If you’re driving, open the windows as in Exercise #4 to help construct a new mental map. If you walk to work, the Neurobic possibilities are even greater.
On your routine commute, the brain goes on automatic pilot and gets little stimulation or exercise. An unfamiliar route activates the cortex and hippocampus to integrate the novel sights, smells, and sounds you encounter into a new brain map.
In one Seinfeld episode, Kramer is asked how to get to Coney Island from Manhattan. He
launches into an elaborate description of subways and buses involving numerous changes scattered throughout the city, various alternatives at each point, and the consequences of each choice. Elaine pipes up and says, “Couldn’t you just take the D train straight there?” Well, of course you can. But in this case Kramer was thinking and living “Neurobically,” looking for alternative pathways, new possibilities, and engaging his brain’s associative powers and navigational abilities to engage in flexible, spatial thinking. Elaine, alas, remains trapped by routine.
Stimulate the tactile pathways involved in the routines of steering, shifting, and signaling by prodding your brain with new materials. (It’s important that the new textures be on the controls, because that gives the new sensory input importance—you need to drive accurately and skillfully, so you pay attention to anything involved in that process.) Improvise by attaching (with double-stick tape or Velcro) different textures (various grades of sandpaper, for example) to the steering wheel or gear shift. Or buy a few inexpensive steering wheel covers with unusual textures—raised grips, terry cloth, textured vinyl—and use a different one each week.
Consider swapping cars with a friend who has a very different kind of car (a stick-shift, van, or sport utility vehicle, for example).
If you’re usually the driver, switch and ride in the backseat. Your perspective on the drive will be totally different.
Different textures produce patterns of activity in the somatosensory cortex of your brain (that’s why you can tell them apart). But after repeated exposure to the same texture, your brain barely pays attention. When you change these textures, driving feels different—and your brain can no longer use[…]”
Simply opening the windows as you drive will let in a tapestry of smells—fresh rain on a macadam road, a street vendor’s cart, leaves burning in autumn—and sounds—birds singing, kids yelling in a school playground, sirens—that mark your route. Like an ancient navigator, your brain will begin to make and recall associations between the sights, sounds, and odors that you encounter.
Remember that the hippocampus is especially involved in associating odors, sounds, and sights to construct mental maps. Opening the windows provides these circuits with more raw material.”
Wear work gloves (or heavy mittens) while driving. Blunting your sense of fine touch forces you to rely on other cues to steer the car or change stations on the radio.
Caution: Do this only when weather conditions and traffic permit.
In addition to fine touch, the skin has receptors for heat, cold, and deep pressure. By blunting fine touch you enhance the role of information coming from pressure receptors and activate different brain pathways involved in driving.
Use odors to form a specific association with a place. Prepare five scent canisters labeled 1 to 5 (see opposite page). At some specific point in your commute—when you pass a certain building, exit, or landmark—open and smell canister #1 for a few seconds to give the place an olfactory “tag.” Having created an association between a specific odor and a place, the presence of either the odor or the place will thereafter activate that association. For example, the smell of cloves may call up a mental image or verbal reference of the “big red house” you tagged.”
During your drive use aromas to form novel associations between smells and sounds. Instead of using a visual stimulation, this exercise associates auditory stimulation—music—with a specific odor. Start by choosing an odor canister (either deliberately or at random) and a favorite song on a CD or tape. Open the odor canister and take a good sniff every time you listen to that song. Imagine pairing pine odor with a country-western ballad, lavender with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, or cloves with Muddy Waters singing the blues. Be creative with your sound-smell combinations: Try some odd pairings and see what kinds of new associations spring to mind.
The goal here is not to remember anything specific, but to provide more raw material to provoke your brain into weaving more associative networks. Both music and smells are powerful stimuli that evoke different emotions. Normally we don’t listen to music in the context of odors or vice versa. In this exercise, the repeated pairing of these two stimuli makes your brain create powerful links between the two, increasing the number of pathways available for storing or accessing memories.
Place a cup filled with different coins in your cup holder. While at a stoplight, try to determine different denominations by feel alone. If your car is equipped with a change holder, place coins into the correct slots, using only your sense of touch.
You can also do this exercise with other small objects of subtly different sizes or textures (various sizes and types of screws, nuts, earrings, or paper clips, 1-inch squares of material such as leather, satin, velour, cotton, or grades of sandpaper). Try to match up a pair of earrings or cuff links, for example.
Because we normally discriminate between objects by looking at them, our tactile discrimination abilities are flabby, like underused muscles. Using touch to distinguish subtly different objects increases activation in cortical areas that process tactile information and leads to stronger synapses. This is the same process that occurs with adults who lose their sight. They learn to distinguish Braille letters because their cortex devotes more pathways to processing fine touch.”
Don’t pass up the many opportunities to enhance the social nature of your commute. Buy the morning or evening paper from a person rather than a vending machine. Need gas? Pay the clerk at the counter rather than just swiping your credit card at the pump.
Wave back and smile or play funny-face games with the kids in the backseat of the car in front of you. Stop at a new place for coffee and a muffin, or a different dry cleaner or flower stand.
Scientific research has repeatedly proved that social deprivation has severe negative effects on overall cognitive abilities. The ongoing MacArthur Foundation projects validate keeping active socially and mentally as critical factors for mental health.
Along with environmental benefits, car pooling provides opportunities for intimate personal interaction—a form of Neurobic exercise. Four people reading their newspapers in a car pool isn’t Neurobic, but using the time to engage with others in lively discussion is. For example, we know of a four-person car pool where each day a different person introduces a subject for discussion—either a controversial topic or provocative story. The rest of the group then reacts.”
You can adapt many of the preceding strategies to commuting by bus, train, or even on foot. If you walk to work, take a few different turns. Or get off the bus before or after your usual stop and walk the rest of the way. Take a scent canister and your Walkman and try Exercise #7 on your walk.
On a train or bus, close your eyes and use other cues, such as the speed of the train or bus, or turns in the road, the sound of brakes, or people getting on and off, to visualize where you are and what it looks like outside.
Interact with people around you.
Take a still or video camera, or a small sketch pad. There’s a whole world outside the window to record when you’re leaving the driving to others.
Read something completely different from your normal commuting fare. Choose a magazine you’ve never heard of from a newsstand. Read the newspaper classifieds and imagine what you might do with one of the opportunities you see.”
Most of us spend about half our waking hours at work. It’s also the place where we most fear an obvious loss of cognitive abilities. Our jobs can consume a lot of brain power, but most of that is directed toward specific tasks— generating the next report, fixing a spreadsheet—that don’t normally use your brain’s associative potential.
While you’re busy at work, you don’t need logic puzzles or other traditional mental “exercises” to further strain your brain. But you can use Neurobics to give yourself “brain breaks” that stretch and flex your mind throughout the workday.
We’ll use the example of a desk job and look for the Neurobic opportunities that don’t disrupt work efforts or ethics. You may have to tailor these exercises to suit your own work situation.
By using daily exposure and routine, your cortex and hippocampus have constructed a spatial “map” of your desktop so that very little mental effort is required to locate your computer mouse, telephone, stapler, wastebasket, and other office tools. Arbitrarily reposition everything. While you’re at it, switch your watch to your other wrist.
Scrambling the location of familiar objects you normally reach for without thinking reactivates spatial learning networks and gets your visual and somatosensory brain areas back to work, adjusting your internal maps.
Moving things around doesn’t have to be restricted to your desktop or furniture. If your work schedule is flexible enough, rearrange the order in which you accomplish daily tasks. Do you look at your mail first thing in the morning? Try another time. Can you take your breaks half an hour earlier or later? Or change regularly scheduled meetings from the morning to the afternoon? Within the constraints of your line of work, incorporate a little “disorder.”
If you want to see the immediate result of rearranging familiar things, simply move your wastebasket from its long-standing position. You’ll notice that each time you have something to throw away, you grammed by repeated experience to throw a piece of paper in a certain direction. That moment when you catch yourself and redirect your actions reflects your brain’s increased alertness to a novel situation and the beginnings of a new series of instructions being entered into your mental program.”
2. SEE THINGS IN A NEW LIGHT
Place different-color gelatin filters (available at art supply or photography stores) over your desk lamp. (Check first for fire hazards).
Colors evoke strong emotional associations that can create completely different feelings about ordinary objects and events. In addition, the occasionally odd effects of color (a purple styrofoam coffee cup) jars your brain’s expectations and lights up more blips on your attentional “radar screen.”
You can activate your memory by pairing an odor and a specific task. For example, to help you remember a certain phone number, use a specific smell every time you dial it. (For this exercise, use the scent canisters described in Making a Scent Canister or buy a few small herb plants.) Crushing some thyme, mint, or sage provides a strong and effective olfactory cue.
Certain odors produce increased alertness and energy. In Japan, nutmeg or cinnamon odors are added to air conditioning systems of office buildings to enhance productivity. This exercise takes the use of odors one step further: Rather than providing odor stimulation as a passive background to everything you do, odors can be used to highlight specific aspects of your workday, which provides a tag for longer-lasting memory.”
Most public elevators and ATMs have Braille instructions for blind or visually impaired individuals. In today’s world, it’s sighted people who suffer “tactile deprivation.” Use your fingers to learn the Braille numbers for different floors of your office building or for controlling the elevator doors.
When you learned to read, you learned to associate a very specific visual stimulus—a letter or number—with a sound, then with a word, and eventually with meaning. Learning to make distinctions and associations with your fingers—such as between two dots and three dots—activates a whole new set of pathways linking the cognitive regions of your cortex (those parts that know what a letter or number stands for) to the sensory regions. By the time you’re able to “read” the button for your floor, using just your fingertips, you’ll have built quite a bit of new circuitry in your cortex.
Bring a friend, child, spouse, or parent to your workplace. Everything you take for granted—the pictures in the halls, the machines you use, your familiar coworkers—are seen anew through another person.
The national Take Our Daughters to Work Day is an excellent example of a novel experience that does wonders not only for your daughter but for your own neural networks.
The simple act of making introductions fosters the all-important social interactions that we know are crucial for a healthy brain. Introducing your child (or friend) to coworkers exercises your abilities with names far more effectively than sitting at your desk and trying to memorize them.”
Brainstorming is a very Neurobic activity, because its goal is to encourage individuals to make associations and then to cross-fertilize them with other people’s associations.”
“Arthur B. VanGundy, an expert on brainstorming, suggests having a varied group of four to six people, with one person acting as facilitator and note taker. The facilitator presents the problem or opportunity— whether it’s for a new product or service, or resolving a difficult situation. Individuals are encouraged to offer up as many ideas as possible, no matter how unpolished, silly, or “wild.” No one may evaluate or judge anything that’s brought up, or dominate the session. Instead, participants must free-associate to build or “hitchhike” on each other’s suggestions. The facilitator writes the suggestions on a board or sheets of newsprint for all to see and keeps the mood playful and fun. (Afterward, those responsible for the assignment take all the ideas, group them into categories, and select those with the most valuable raw material.)
The word brainstorm itself conjures up images of flashing lightning bolts. The lightning bolts in the brain are really the electrical flashes crisscrossing between brain areas that only rarely communicate, and the “storm” captures the idea that this exercise provides an environment for increasing the number and intensity of these unusual associations.
Another effective technique using associations to clears the mind, and opens the door to real-world sensory stimulation. Try fostering non stressful, mind-expanding interactions during this time. Enlist some coworkers to start a walking, talking, or discussion group during breaks or lunch.
“Another effective technique using associations to stimulate creativity is often used by illustrators and art directors. It is based on a technique that originated at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. Write down the assignment or problem, and generate two or more columns of associations that relate to it. Then combine associations from one column with those from the other. If, for example, the task is to illustrate an article about vacations in Alaska, you might list:
“Vacations – Alaska
beach – ice
cruise ship – polar bears
sunglasses – bears
suitcases – salmon
cars, trains, – planes Eskimos
relaxing – oil wells
swimming (pools) – wilderness
eating – snow
sleeping – hunting
drinks dog sleds”
“After much cross-referencing you might decide to illustrate a picture of an Eskimo and a polar bear holding up their salmon to be photographed by a tourist…or a polar bear wearing sun-
There’s more to a coffee break than loading up on caffeine (a short-term brain performance enhancer, actually). Coffee and lunch breaks give you time for mental stretching and social interaction. A brisk fifteen-minute walk outdoors invigorates the body, clears the mind, and opens the door to real-world sensory stimulation. Try fostering nonstressful, mind-expanding interactions during this time. Enlist some coworkers to start a walking, talking, or discussion group during breaks or lunch.”
We know of one office where a chessboard was left out near the water cooler. Any employee could come to the board (preferably during a break), assess the situation, and make a move. It was an ongoing game, with no known players, and no winners or losers.
Even a novice chess player will weigh dozens of possible moves, attempt to visualize the consequences of each one, then select the move that offers some strategic advantage. This type of “random-player” chess game doesn’t allow anyone to develop a long-term strategy. But it does require visual-spatial thinking that is different from what most of us do at work. The brief gear switching provides a break from verbal, left-brain activities and lets the “working brain” take a breather.
Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.
Your brain is quite literally of two minds when it comes to processing visual information. The analytical, “verbal” part of your brain (sometimes called the “left brain”) tries to label an object after just a brief glance: “table,” “chair,” “child.” The “right brain,” in contrast, perceives spatial relationships and uses nonverbal cues. When you look at a familiar picture right side up, your left brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention to other things. When the picture is upside down, the quick labeling strategy doesn’t work—and your right-brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture. The strategy of looking at things upside down is a key component for awakening the latent artist in us, as described by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”
You can adapt many of the exercises from other sections to use in your workplace. For example:
Get a new cover or cushion for your chair.
Make a collection of things like small squares of carpet samples, different grades of sandpaper, or different types of paper and tape a few different ones on the underside of your desk or to the side of your computer monitor or phone. Take a few seconds throughout the day to feel each and make fine distinctions between them.
Collect small objects like paper clips, fasteners, nails, or screws in a cup and during a break or while on the phone, identify them strictly by touch.
Bring earphones and a portable tape or CD player to use during the workday (or a CD and earphones for your computer). You might experiment with some of the natural environmental tracks available and bring the sea, the surf, the forest, or the jungle into your personal space.
Try working with the hand you don’t normally use for some daily tasks, such as writing, stapling, turning on machines, or dialing the telephone. Or eat your lunch and snacks with the “wrong” hand.
As previously discussed, changing which hand you use can unleash a tremendous amount of new brain wiring. You may not think of it as learning, but the nerve cells in your brain do!
Change where or with whom you eat lunch[…]”
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