Have you ever heard of neurobics?
The term ‘neurobics’ was invented by professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Centre Dr Lawrence Katz and his colleague Manning Rubin, who together wrote the book Keeping Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss an Increase Mental Fitness. Neurobic exercises require you to deviate from your routine in order to stimulate new neural pathways - with the result that the brain becomes mentally alert and fit to meet a range of challenges, from mastering a new computer programme to becoming more creative at work.
The neural basis for ‘exercising the brain’
Neurobic exercises use the brain’s natural tendency to form associations to do things in different ways so that it forms new associations. Just as aerobic exercises emphasise different muscle groups to enhance coordination and flexibility, neurobic exercises activate different parts of the brain to increase the range of what Katz refers to as ‘mental motion’. When you exercise underused parts of your brain, a natural growth hormone called neurotrophin is released, and enhances your brain’s ‘fitness’ by strengthening nerve connections and encouraging the growth of dendrites inside the brain. (Dendrites are the short branching fibres that grow from a neurone and increase the surface area available for sending and receiving information.) Mental decline is associated with shortening of dendrites, widening the synapses between cells so information is not transmitted very effectively. This eventually leads to memory loss and other cognitive impairment.
How to turn a task into a neurobic activity
According to Katz and Rubin, neurobic exercises must fulfil the following three criteria:
- Engage one or more of your senses in a new way
- Involve your full attention
- Deviate from your normal routine
Throughout your day there are plenty of opportunities to turn a routine task into a neurobic activity. Not only will this stimulate your brain, but it’s also fun to do and encourages you to engage with your environment in a different way – and you’ll feel more alert and alive.
Four ways to give your brain a neurobic workout
Each of our senses – smell, sound, taste, touch and sound – have their own areas in the brain. Using a sense results in electrical activity being transmitted along nerve pathways, keeping them flexible, fit and active. Today, we rely predominantly on our senses of vision and hearing, leading to inactivity in those neural pathways responsible for the other senses. Neurobic exercises help activate these underused neural pathways.
The exercises themselves are pretty easy to devise. A routine activity such as brushing your teeth can be turned into a neurobic exercise simply by holding your toothbrush in your other hand and giving it your full attention. Here are four other exercises you could try:
- Have a shower with your eyes closed. You’ll become more aware of the sound of the water as it runs off your body and splashes onto the floor. The scent of your shampoo will also be heightened, and your body will become more responsive to the warm water. Your spatial awareness will be challenged too as you search for the soap and feel your way to your sponge.
- Use your non-dominant hand to perform a routine task, for example eating a slice of toast, drinking a cup of tea or holding your mobile phone.
- Close your eyes and use your senses of touch, smell and spatial awareness to help you find your front door.
- Take a new route to work or college.
It’s generally accepted that mental awareness comes from using your brain in new ways. These neurobic exercises are a fun way to stimulate new neural pathways, with the plus point that the only expense required is some of your time and your imagination.