Living with Intention is the Fountain of Youth
BY BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
Remember looking back on your school year as a kid? When you finished a grade level, you were a completely different person from when you began. You might have new friends, new interests, new abilities, and even a whole new identity. Each year was full of experiences that changed you and shaped your attitudes and perceptions.
Kids naturally grow, especially within a stimulating environment like school. They change from week to week as they are constantly engulfed in novel information, experiences, and social interactions. They absorb the input from their surroundings, take it all in, and incorporate it into who they are. Development and change are inevitable for kids in school.
This propensity for, and the inevitability of, growth changes when you become an adult. When it comes to staying mentally sharp, we either “use it or lose it.” You can’t always rely on your environment to be a catalyst for your growth.
In fact, if you don’t actively and intentionally pursue growth activities, you may find yourself succumbing to the cognitive effects of aging. If you want to stay mentally sharp, you must actively pursue change and activate your neuroplasticity. You have to take more responsibility for creating and pursuing novelty and newness in your life.
What is Neuroplasticity and Why is it So Important?
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s capacity to change in new positive ways if you live intentionally. To trigger neuroplasticity, our approach to activities should be conscious and intentional. At every age, new skills, behaviors, feelings, and beliefs are within our grasp, but only if we push ourselves to really stretch and grow beyond our comfort zone.
When it comes to aging and our brain, the theme really is “use it or lose it.” The good news is, our minds possess neuroplasticity at any age. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but you must consciously learn to activate your brain’s neuroplasticity using intention. If you don’t push yourself, the effects of aging can be frightening.
Dr. Michael Merzenich outlines the effects of aging on our brains in his book “Soft Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” He tells us that as we age, our senses often lessen. Your hearing becomes less acute. Memories start to shift, and you don’t have as much recall. Peripheral vision narrows over time. He describes this as a sort of static in your brain, where the signals aren’t as clear; your vocabulary goes down, and your senses dull.
Aging beautifully isn’t for sissies because aging badly is the norm. Aging distills our personality traits, too. For example, if someone is generally irritable when they’re younger, they become crankier and more intolerant as they age. If someone always needs to be right or win an argument, they may become quite rabid as they get older. Similarly, if someone is flighty or flaky, as they age, they may become a ditzy caricature of themselves.
In London, becoming a cab driver is a major ordeal. To become a cab driver, you must not only be skilled at driving but also have an excellent memory and undergo rigorous testing to prove that you have memorized all of the streets in London. In addition to knowing the streets, you are also expected to know a variety of paths between different locations in the city and be able to reroute at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, it takes a long time to learn and become a successful cab driver in London.
Though we may scoff at this now-antiquated process of memorizing streets when we have GPS in every device, the cab driver’s brains are pretty remarkable. In fact, MRIs performed on London cab drivers show a tremendous amount of brain activity going on. They spend their time learning and studying. They’re constantly adapting and adjusting to new situations and stimuli. Meanwhile, those of us reliant on GPS could follow the instructions into a lake before we’d notice. We aren’t thinking; we’re simply following directions. Cab drivers display neuroplasticity because they have to regularly engage their minds on the job.
Neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to build and form new neuropathways. These neuropathways are the routes we take to develop new habits, build new skills, discover new beliefs, and experience new feelings. You must consciously activate your neuroplasticity by adopting an intentional approach to living—seeking out and finding new opportunities for growth. You have to stretch beyond your comfort zone because you need novelty to wake your brain up.
“You may not change as rapidly as you did in elementary school, but you’re still engaged in growth.”
Early in adulthood, your lifestyle often aligns with growth. Young adults often go to college; meet new people; perhaps go to vocational school or job training. In your twenties you seek out relationships and connections; you might date and get married; you might have kids. You may move to a new neighborhood, buy a new home, or start pursuing new hobbies. These experiences stretch you and put you on a life path supportive of neuroplasticity. Like school, your environment is a catalyst for new learning.
When you’re developing your career, starting your family, and building connections, you’re naturally stimulated and experiencing daily novelty. You may not change as rapidly as you did in elementary school, but you’re still engaged in growth. You automatically need to stretch yourself and pay attention to keep up with all the new happenings life throws your way.
But about the time you hit 35 or so, you may find you’ve fallen into a groove. Your life becomes more systematic and routine. You’re not pushing yourself and building your neuroplasticity. You go to work each day, having become comfortable in your career. Unlike a London cab driver, you probably don’t need to constantly reroute and adjust your approach. You’ve started to solidify your patterns.
This shift from a neuroplasticity-growing lifestyle isn’t a conscious one for most of us. We don’t flip a switch and decide to fall into a pattern (or a rut). Unfortunately, this also leads to grooves and ruts in our neuropathways. By the time we hit age 70, we’ve spent 35 years ignoring those neuropathways rather than actively developing them. The cost is huge.
Breaking Free from the Patterns of Aging
When I was in my early 20s, I took up the guitar. I learned a few chords and could play a couple of simple songs. I enjoyed it, but I never got any better because I kept playing the same familiar chords over and over again.
If I wasn’t stretching into uncomfortable areas—the next set of more difficult, challenging chords that made me stretch my fingers—then I was never going to improve. In fact, the less I pushed myself, the more my playing went downhill.
It’s constant stretching that really wakes your brain up. You can’t simply practice the same songs over and over. You must keep pushing yourself to learn new notes and different, more complex, intricate tunes.
For this reason, retirement is often a time of decline rather than stimulation. It’s not that the idea of finishing your current career is bad, per se, but for many people at retirement age, work is a crucial area of stimulation and novelty. Work brings many people a sense of purpose and quitting work leaves them with even fewer new pursuits. Typical retirement leisure activities like golf or bike rides don’t create that brain-stimulating stretch, especially if you aren’t engaged in training up to the next level as a golfer or cyclist.
We retread our neuropathways over and over until it becomes difficult to break free from the deep grooves we’ve set.
Our habits and character traits become more intense over time. We become more set in our ways. Again, it comes back to the idea of getting stuck in a rut of who we are. We retread our neuropathways over and over until it becomes difficult to break free from the deep grooves we’ve set.
It’s not that older people aren’t capable of breaking these patterns. There are natural, age-related occurrences in our brain, but we can fight it. We must pursue novel, intentional, comfort-zone stretching activities. If we aren’t counteracting aging by really growing our neuroplasticity, then we’ll inevitably experience more significant cognitive decline.
How to Live with More Intention and Build Your Neuroplasticity
So, what is the counterfoil of this stagnation? Do we take music lessons? Sign up for yoga? Learn a foreign language? Travel? Do the Sunday crossword puzzle?
We’re not truly engaging if we aren’t approaching activities with intention, intention to stretch—I would have needed to play increasingly difficult music on the guitar to get better and you need to have new, challenging aims. Take vacations, for example—rather than travel or leisure for the sake of entertainment, consider what you are learning from the experience. Traveling is fantastic, but it’s even better if you’re learning something new along the way. What’s the history of your destination? What will you learn about the local culture? Or the artwork? Or music? Really engage, rather than simply view and take photos.
Living with intention is deeply related to discovering ways to live with more purpose. Our sense of purpose comes from a life that meets the yearnings of our heart, brings meaning to our lives, and allows us to mindfully connect with others. Intention helps activate our neuroplasticity. We need to pursue and learn new things that bring us a deeper sense of purpose.
We see a lot of advertisements for brain games and puzzles these days that promise to build our cognition. While problem-solving helps stimulate our brains, many of those games aren’t research-based. When we learn a puzzle game, like Sudoku, it becomes a habit too, because we become so good at it.
Instead, we need to learn new skills and concepts that build on each other, to push our boundaries and stretch us. We need stimulation and engagement—pursue activities that are difficult and thought-provoking. Remember that growth is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s not always easy or straightforward. Learning a new instrument, a physical activity like dance (that builds the brain-body connection), or a new language offers novelty and becomes increasingly challenging as we level up.
If you study literature on high performance and expertise, you’ll learn people who become masters at a task practice for 10,000 hours or more. But they don’t simply do the same lesson over and over. Mastery is built through deliberate, intentional practice—ratcheting up the difficulty each time you engage in the activity.
“Find activities that bring you a sense of purpose and pursue them with intention.”
Now, you don’t need to become a chess master, renowned artist, or first chair violinist at the symphony to build neuropathways. Intentional, deliberate practice means going a little further each day. Don’t practice the same piece or look at the music in different ways and break it down. Try new and different approaches to the problem and continue to work at it often. When the famous Russian-American pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz was asked why he practiced every day, he said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”
Find activities that bring you a sense of purpose and pursue them with intention. People with purpose have such wonderful results in their lives because they’re continually activating their neuroplasticity. Their brains are stimulated and vibrant.
Whatever you pay attention to becomes the focus of your brain. If you pay attention to mindless activities, they take up the real estate in your mind. If you emphasize worry and negative thinking, then you will grow those patterns instead of focusing on building what really matters.
Aging is a part of life. We all experience a little decline in our mental sharpness (what Dr. Merzenich refers to as “the static”). Bob often tells me that when he met me, I had a photographic memory. It was always easy for me to remember lines from a book, phone numbers, and names. Now I can’t recall them quite as quickly, although I’m still a voracious reader. It naturally happens as we get older.
It’s so important we continue to keep our minds sharp. If we don’t live with intention and actively pursue new activities, we may be letting it all go. There are so many skills we learn throughout our lives; if we don’t keep them fresh and honed, we’ll lose them.
Look at each activity in your life through fresh eyes. Think of the way a child looks at each new experience—like he or she has never seen it before. How will you approach everyday activities with more intention? How can you relearn a skill and take it further? How will you push yourself to be a little more uncomfortable or a little more challenged?
Ultimately, breaking out of our comfort zone will bring us greater joy and satisfaction. If you want to fight the effects of aging, start living with more intention today!
For more ways to live a full and vibrant life, please visit www.wrightfoundation.org.
About the Authors – Judith and Bob Wright
“The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.