Your brain becomes fossilized with age.
At least, that’s what they say.
In order to be classified as a fossil, a specimen usually has to be over 10,000 years old. When you consider this, comparing aged brains to fossils isn’t exactly a flattering metaphor. Fossils are hard, lifeless remains of what once was a thriving being — and that’s exactly what your brain becomes with time.
But it starts even earlier than that.
When we’re young, we’re led to believe that our traits are set in stone. For instance, a child who does poorly in school thinks of himself as unintelligent. A teenager is told that she cannot work well with others, so she starts believing she is anti-social. A failure or two leads you to give up on an endeavor because you’re just not suited for that type of work.
Once we start falling into certain types of beliefs, our actions and attitudes compound until we become what we believe ourselves to be. At some point, it becomes too painful to bother trying something new.
In 1928, neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had the following to say on the brain: “In adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”
However, in the decades since then, increasing research has shown that the brain is malleable and capable of change. Depending on the environment, the brain is able to reshape itself in response to the changes it’s exposed to.
To see an example of this, let’s take a look at London’s cab drivers.
The Complex Brains of London’s Taxi Drivers
Becoming a licensed cab driver isn’t an easy feat. But becoming a taxi driver in London? The process will push your brain to its limits.
In order to qualify, applicants need to pass “The Knowledge”, a notoriously difficult exam that tests applicants’ knowledge of thousands of streets and routes. On average, a person will take around 2 to 4 years to learn everything. In order to pass the exam, you need to memorize 320 sample runs in the Blue Book, the official guide for aspiring taxi drivers.
In addition to these runs, you also need to know the 25,000 streets within these routes and around 20,000 points of interest, such as museums, parks, pubs, schools, churches, and any other place a passenger might ask you to go.
When the time comes for your test, you need to be able to determine the most direct legal route between two points without referring to a map, and then give the exact direction of roads, streets, and turns needed to arrive at a destination.
And just to be sure you know London inside out, you will be required to go through a series of oral exams over a period of time before the examiners are confident that you have what it takes to become one of London’s taxi drivers.
At the end of it all, you not only get a license to drive a taxi in London, but your brain itself changes too. A University College London study analyzed the brains of trainees before and after training for The Knowledge.
They found that the brains of successful trainees increased in the parts associated with memory. Also, a London taxi driver’s hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with spatial navigation, is much larger than those in the rest of the human population.
How to Optimize Your Brain
It’s amazing to know that our brains physically change in response to how we use it.
When we make a habit of doing certain types of mental exercises, the parts of our brain that get used become larger. Hence, a virtuous cycle occurs. We practice a skill that increases a part of our brain, and in turn, that increased part of our brain helps us when practicing that skill.
So how do you get your brain to work in your favor?
Here are three ways:
1. Change your mindset.
Did you know that complaining constantly can literally change your brain?
According to research, whenever you have a thought, a synapse in your brain fires a chemical to another synapse. Every time this electrical charge is fired off, the synapses grow closer together and form a bridge. Eventually, the brain rewires itself so that certain thoughts get triggered more easily.
So whenever you tell yourself something negative, it becomes easier each subsequent time to have those thoughts. You soon find yourself believing those thoughts are reality instead of perception. The good news, the same concept applies when you tell yourself positive things.
The next time you have a negative thought, turn it into a positive one:
- Instead of saying, “I’m bad at math,” say “I need to practice math more to become better.”
- Instead of saying, “I wish that had never happened,” say “This was a valuable learning opportunity. How can I use it in the future?”
- Instead of saying, “I’m worried things won’t turn out how I want them to,” say “I will do what is best based on what I know and what is within my control.”
See the difference? When you blame external circumstances for failures and misfortunes, you remove yourself from any sense of responsibility. However, when you start thinking about what you can do to improve the situation, you put the control back in your hands.
2. Practice a skill.
A study showed that the cortical representation of each finger of string players’ left hands was larger than those of non-musicians. Also, the amount of cortical representation of the musicians’ fingers correlated with the age at which the person began learning their instrument.
In other words, the brain rewires itself according to the actions of the individual. If a person practices certain things over and over, the brain conforms itself in relation to the time spent practicing. These changes reflect your brain’s ability to help you adapt to your environment.
Whether you are creating artwork, playing a sport, or learning an instrument, know that solid hours of practice on a consistent basis is the most effective way to get ahead. The more you work on that skill and the earlier you start, the more your brain helps you accelerate the process.
3. Keep learning new things.
Many people dream of the day when they can stop showing up to work for good. But a closer look at early retirement reveals that it can have a negative impact on people, including cognitive decline and lessened ability to perform daily tasks.
The mental and physical effects of retirement worsen the earlier someone retires from the mean age. Retiring at age 50 is incredibly bad for health. Retiring at age 60 isn’t great either, but it isn’t quite as bad as retiring at 50.
The optimal age? Around late 60s. Of course, this depends on other factors as well, such as your financial situation, what your peers do, and the overall attitudes within your area.
But if you must quit work, then engage yourself mentally with complex tasks.
I find it interesting to look at how retirees choose to spend their time. Some go on cruises, some play golf, and others volunteer at local charities. Not that these are mutually exclusive.
One couple I know enjoys living in different cities for months at a time to learn the local language. This may seem like an excuse to go on vacation, but it’s actually a clever method of immersing yourself in a new environment and keeping your brain on its toes.
No matter what stage of your career you’re at, picking up new concepts and challenges regularly will help you out in all aspects of life, from solving large dilemmas to performing everyday tasks.
Changing Yourself Begins With Changing Your Brain
Now that we know our brains are capable of change, we can think and act our way towards the direction we want. We can pick up skills, change our outlook, and even improve our character. While many things in life are outside our control, the way we use and treat our brain isn’t one of them.
Change doesn’t come easy. It takes consistent work and dedication before any progress is seen. But if you believe in the ability to change, then you can turn concepts into reality.