New and Novel Experiences Promote Brain Health

Healthy Brain, Happy Life is a delightful integration of the very latest discoveries from modern neuroscience about the lifestyle choices we can make – exercise, diet, sleep, meditation, being in healthy relationships and vibrant communities – that can improve the health of our brains and the happiness of our selves. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki investigates the patterns of brain activity underlying long-term memory at NYU and runs experiments to learn how exercise can increase brain cell volume and improve our learning, memory, and cognitive abilities.  This post is the first in a series of four on choices we can make – four minutes at a time – that will can boost our brain power and spiral up our well-being.

Dr. Suzuki studied with Dr. Marion Diamond at University of California, Berkeley.  Dr. Diamond’s  experiments proved that enriched environments for rat research subjects – more running wheels, more toys, more fellow rats to play with – significantly increased cells in the cortex (higher brain) and impoverished environments – no exercise, no toys, no companions – actually shrank the cell volume in the higher brain – That research was the first laboratory proof of neuroplasticity and really launched the modern scientific understanding that brains can grow and change lifelong through the stimulation of new experiences. 

Dr. Suzuki has continued research into how basic lifestyle choices cause key areas in the brain to grow new brain cells, sprout new connections among those cells, generate more blood vessels in those areas (more fuel for the cells), myelinate the cell axons so neurons communicate with each other faster – thus making our brains “smarter,” our moods brighter and making us more motivated to pursue those lifestyle choices.

Dr. Suzuki created a novel experience herself when she pioneered an undergraduate course at NYU, “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” which simultaneously was a research project – students worked out in class for one hour, then had a one hour lecture on what was happening in their brains while exercising, then half an hour discussion about their experiences of exercising and learning. (In one semester on once-a-week exercising and learning, students showed improved response time in pre-post testing compared to the control group of students in a similar introductory neuroscience class, minus the exercise.)

In this post, because new or novel experiences activate the neuroplasticity of the brain, catalyzing learning and growth, I offer examples of simple 4-minute brain hacks that Dr. Suzuki recommends to promote the health of your brain.  Meant to be fun, motivating, and effective….

Motor cortex:  Go online and teach yourself a new dance move from the So You Think You Can Dance website and then practice it for four minutes to your favorite music.  (Do this with a friend for even more brain stimulation and growth!)

Taste cortex:  Try a cuisine that you have never tried before: Laotian, Ethiopian, Croatian, and Turkish come to mind.  For extra credit, try eating a meal I complete darkness and notice how the lack of visual input affects your sense of taste. 

Visual cortex:  The next time you go to a museum, pick a piece of artwork you are not familiar with and just sit quietly and get lost visually in it for at least four minutes.   (You can also find a new piece of art online and explore it visually on your computer; that will stimulate your visual cortex, too.)

Because the olfactory bulb is the only brain structure outside of the hippocampus that generates new cells on its own (more about neurogenesis in a later post)…

Olfactory: Sit and smell your most odorous meal of the day.  Before eating anything, take a few minutes to smell the food and try to notice the different aromas and try to describe them.  This will stimulate activity in your higher brain as well as generating new neurons through your olfactory system.