by Emma Howden
I recently caught up with a childhood friend who’d moved to Australia, and our conversation weaved a typical course; from work, to children, to wider family – until I enquired after her mother.
She answered with a general update on her health but then commented how her mum regularly phoned from her UK-based time zone and woke her at all hours of the night, often from a deep sleep, to tell her things that, as a busy working person, she’d rather not chat about right then. Recently, she’d answered a 1 am phone call to hear that her mother’s cat had just caught a bird.
In response to my sympathetic headshake, my friend shrugged and concluded: ‘Mum’s world has become very small.’
Her words hung like a neon warning sign in the air long after we finished our conversation.
How do you keep your world from becoming very small?
‘Every time we learn a new fact or skill, we change our brain!’ In her TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Dr Lara Boyd describes how every new experience allows us to keep shaping our brains. This is referred to as neuroplasticity and can work for good or bad (see TEDx – Dr Lara Boyd ). Simply put, with a bit of intent, we can maximise this neuroplasticity and actively keep our brains changing in a positive direction.
For each of us – whether we feel invigorated and ready for a new chapter of challenges or have a hankering for staying current while enjoying some fun and relaxation – there are a wide range of ways to keep our brains healthy and active.
Keep an eye on current affairs
You may naturally love politics and minute-by-minute updates on current events. But if that’s not your thing, you can still easily enjoy a grasp of what’s going on around the world and stay informed and conversant. Have a look at the reputable news sites and choose one that works for you and check in on it every morning while you enjoy your first cuppa. The BBC is my personal ‘go to’ – helpfully they often sum up a complex or long-running situation with a short ‘What you need to know’ article, as well as highlighting the day’s most read pieces. By giving these a skim, you’ll hold your own in any conversation.
Amongst my circle, as children have left home and other responsibilities have abated, I’ve seen a number of friends literally go back to school, and embark on new chapters of formal study. Whether through the Open University or other campus-supported learning, there are many accredited options out there, whatever your field of interest.
Adult education centres offer many options – from jewellery-making or British Sign Language to business and IT skills. Whether you have time for the occasional Saturday course or can commit to longer weekly sessions, there is literally no shortage of choices.
Look out for regional specialist courses too. Whatever inspires you, whether it’s hands-on cider-making, Highland dancing or local history – pretty much anything you might want to learn about will be offered somewhere.
Travel doesn’t have to be far and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The UK particularly is chock-full of interesting history, breath-taking landscapes and regional nuances. Whether you travel to do a course, travel to meet people, or to experience something different – there is no doubt that breaking new ground broadens your mind, with the added advantage of freeing your focus from usual distractions.
In doubt? Search it out!
Want to know who is the current emperor of Japan or the technical difference between baking powder and bicarbonate of soda? Just whip out your smart phone or iPad and look it up! It’s not for nothing that this chapter of history is called the Information Age. And the beauty of this age is that some learning is only as far away as the nearest computer. Whether it’s how to change a plug, create the latest look in eyebrows or find foot exercises to ward off plantar fasciitis – there’ll be an article or YouTube video only a search away.
And there’s another advantage too. Often communication gaps widen between generations as language usage evolves. I discovered this when trying to interpret mystifying acronyms such as ‘idk, ttyl, np’ in text messages I received from my kids. In the days of yore, I would have messaged back and asked what these meant, reminding them just how out of date I was. Not now. I simply enter these perplexing ciphers into Google and am able to respond appropriately – whilst growing my kudos with my kids. So if ‘idk’ (I don’t know), it’s ‘np’ (no problem). I can just look it up and ‘ttyl’ (talk to you later).
I live on my own and at one point I became aware that the minute I sat down with a friend, I’d talk for 30 minutes without drawing breath, unloading thoughts that had gone around my head since my last human interaction. In a moment of self-reflection, I realised that, while I had a valid reason for my wanting to do this, it probably wasn’t that much fun for the people I was spending time with and – in just reciting my own thoughts – I wasn’t learning anything new.
We all want to be heard and understood, but in any friendship, that is a two-way need. Making a habit of asking open questions allows other people to share their ideas and experiences. Who knows what fascinating new insights we might gather this way?
Whether what works for you is signing up for an exercise class, making sure you go for a brisk walk every day or practising Pilates in your own home, it’s claimed that keeping fit is good for many things including sleep, memory and warding off depression. Certainly a natural rush of the feel-good hormones endorphins, that are released when we exercise, will contribute to maintaining a brighter and more positive outlook.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, doing any of the above regularly will shape our brains for the better and naturally help us to be the best version of ourselves.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has two sons who’re off at uni, and so is learning first hand all about making the most of living a good “second half”.