Two effective ways to murder your brain is through chronic stress and chronic boredom.
Chronic stress kills through producing hormones – such as glucocorticoids – that initiate and accelerate brain atrophy; in other words, stress causes your body to release harmful hormones that damage your whole body, brain included.
Boredom on the other hand, kills through denying the brain it’s fundamental nutrition – stimulation. To be chronically bored is like putting your brain on an anorexic diet.
“Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment; the monotony undermines our dopamine and attentional systems crucial to maintaining brain health” – Norman Doidge from The Brain That Changes Itself
In other words, boredom is kryptonite to the brain.
If, during your critical development years, you were confined to an environment devoid of stimulation, play, and education, you wouldn’t be able to speak or read or interact with others, and worse yet, you’d even lose the ability to learn these skills later in life.
Although the adult brain is no longer in the critical development period, the effects of deprivation are still destructive. This is because the brain never stops developing, regardless of age; instead, it reacts to the environment and changes in response to it’s diet, just like your body. And this isn’t simply confined to the way it works either – instead, it’s physical structure changes in response to challenging stimulation or lack thereof – a classic case of use it or lose it.
That said, your brain isn’t going to melt if you fail to spend every hour of every day with your face in a calculus textbook. Instead, treat your brain like you should treat your body by providing exercise on a regular basis. Aim to make continual brain gains through challenging yourself.
In addition, through a commit to lifelong learning, both your immediate experience and your future self will benefit immeasurably. As Norman Doidge explains, “we must be learning if we are to feel fully alive, and when life, or love, becomes too predictable and it seems like there is little left to learn, we become restless – a protest, perhaps, of the plastic brain when it can no longer perform its essential task”.
The Key is Challenge
The most common way of alleviating the pain produced by chronic boredom is through passive entertainment; however, this method lacks the challenge necessary to ensure brain health. This is sort of like treating a gunshot wound with whiskey and a heavy dose of opiates – sure, you might not feel it anymore, yet you’re still dying.
A simple way to differentiate between the useless and the useful is to pay attention to how engaged and challenged you are through the activity. No challenge and no active engagement means no gains and more stagnation.
Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and into new areas that provide challenge. Learn new skills, find a new area of interest or a new hobby, hone the skills you already have – become active.
“When we neglect to challenge our brains, it breaks down through lack of use. As a result, the brain loses its ability to learn. We must continually challenge our brain as we age to ensure that it remains capable of learning and that it does not break down through lack of use” – Norman Doidge from The Brain That Changes Itself
The issue of boredom extends past our immediate experience and well into the future, for if we allow ourselves to languish or rely on dull forms of entertainment, we allow the brain to rust. Thankfully, small amounts of rust can be repaired; however, if left too long, the damage becomes permanent. As we age the affects of atrophy become more and more apparent.
Successful aging relies heavily on our ability to stay engaged with the environment, both mentally and physically. The adult brain, it has been shown, can create new neurons well into our later years, but this depends on whether it receives the nourishment it needs. Like a garden, with adequate care and attention, your brain will continually produce beauty; if instead it’s left to deteriorate, you’ll get nothing but ragweed and hay-fever.
Extending the example of bringing your brain to the gym, the transition from passivity to activity and challenge will not necessarily be an easy one. Like first going to the gym, it’s going to be a drag, you’re going to be sore, you’re going to suffer setbacks and wonder just what the hell you are doing there; but, through persistence, the pain will dissolve into a feeling of purpose and empowerment and eventually, enjoyment.