Updated: Mar 9, 2020
A walk with a friend Many years ago, I was a member of a group for artistically-inclined teenagers at a local art museum in a historic house with magnificent artwork and gardens. One beautiful, mild afternoon, we made masks of our faces. Working with partners, we took turns. One partner would form the masks of strips of cloth dipped in Paris craft and placing the strips on the face of the other partner. While the masks dried, the partners took a walk outside in the gardens and wooded area near the home. The partner with sight led the other partner who would experience the beauty of the outdoors in a new way. Then they would trade places and repeat the experience from the other perspective.
My partner was a boy a few years younger than I was. I led him outdoors and through the gardens and woods. I looked out for his physical safety. He completely trusted me to lead him around obstacles and to choose a path we would take. I looked for things he might appreciate without being able to see them. As I looked for things for him to feel and smell and hear, I experienced those things differently as well. A new way of seeing
When my turn to dry my mask came, I trusted my partner as he had me. Walking wherever he led me, I took steps cautiously and slowly. I was more aware of the surfaces under my feet, of the way the different surfaces felt. I navigated the dirt and twigs beneath my feet in the wooded area with my friend's guidance. It was so many years ago that I can't remember the specific things heard and smelled and touched, but I remember experiencing those things differently for fifteen or twenty minutes. Dependent on and grateful for vision as I was, I appreciated that experience of being in nature in a way I hadn't before.
This was a bonding experience between me and my young friend. I don't remember the names of anyone else in that group of teens. But I remember him, and I remember his name. We had been friends before and remained friends after our experiment, but it is that afternoon I remember best of any I spent in that program. It was my younger friend whom I felt I would miss the most when we all said goodbye on the last day of the program.
Sight is a beautiful blessing, and to see the world around us is glorious thing. It was not the lack of visual input that made my afternoon walk outside memorable but rather the way that I paid more attention to the sounds and smells and sensations I enjoyed. The experience was eye-opening in its way, alerting me to the wonders of the world discernible through my senses beyond sight. It also increased my appreciation for vision and for the world of all the senses integrated. Brain aerobics It turns out that there is a word for this kind of experiment. I never heard the word neurobics until recently. The word, meaning "brain aerobics," was coined by Lawrence Katz, Ph.D and Manning Rubin in their book Keep Your Brain Alive. Neurobics is doing mental exercises involving using the senses in new and different ways. This creates new neural pathways and is thought to keep the brain fit the way exercise can keep the muscles strong. We are creatures of routine to a large extent. While some people are very spontaneous, some rely heavily on routine and need strict order in each day. It can be necessary in some aspects of life and in some jobs. It is healthy to have good habits, things we do automatically. Most of us have have and need structure to our days, and that is normal and necessary. But sometimes we may feel we serve our routine rather than it serving us. Like so many things, the balance must be achieved between too much and too little routine.
Some exercises are simple. They might involve doing things in a new way, using senses together in an unfamiliar way, engaging the emotions in a surprising way, or breaking with routine. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand or write or draw with your non-dominant hand. Try writing backwards. Walk backwards. Take a shower or get dressed with your eyes closed. I remember breaking a finger in fifth grade and having to write left-handed for the last two weeks of school. It was an inconvenience, but it was also interesting to write left-handed. it was slower and not as neat, but it was an interesting challenge. When I lived in Japan, I learned to use chopsticks. It quickly became easy, but it was different than using spoons and forks as I was used to, and it did make a difference in the dining experience.
Turn objects on your desk upside down one day. Turn your watch upside down. Or close your eyes, and listen to music while enjoying a scent. When you wake up, wiggle your toes for a moment before getting out of bed. Try to identify spices in your cupboard by smell. Try to listen for one instrument in a familiar piece of music. Take a different route to work or another familiar place or jog a different route. I find that in taking walks with my husband, we walk the same routes most of the time. Those days when we try a new route stand out and give us a change of scenery and new things to notice. We can benefit from going to a new store, maybe a farmer's market or something unique or different. We can read a new magazine unlike others we typically read. Just having lunch outside, a picnic or a lunch at a outdoor cafe provides new experience that is good for the brain. Try a new recipe, or try a different type of food at a restaurant. Go to a museum or a local site. Go camping or hiking or dancing or just to the movies if you don't go very often. Many of these things we do anyway, just as we may get exercise for our bodies incidentally in everyday life. These little things don't take a great deal of time or investment. My time in Japan gave me a wonderful opportunity to try a variety of Japanese foods, to learn Japanese syllables and phrases, and to do and observe many things the way they are done in that country. Whenever we take up a new hobby or take a new class or learn a new skill, we exercise our brains in a neurobic way. Instinctively, we sometimes feel the need for something new in our lives, the need to change things up, even when we are happy with our lives. Perhaps it's similar to wanting to go walk or run a few laps when we have been sitting too long. Those new things we introduce into our routine improve blood flow and neuroplasticity or neuroelasticity. This is believed to help improve memory, mood, and focus. No matter what our age, brain exercise is good for us.