Slow Down Brain Function Decline and Follow Your Joy

Author: Kate Findley
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By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

As we get older, everything begins to slow down—including our cognitive function. Professor Vishton shares a simple tip for reigniting your brain with that youthful glow, while also bringing more fun and novelty into your life.

Elder woman painting
Engaging in new activities and learning how to do new things helps to slow down the aging process of the brain. Photo By Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Brain Function Decline

Aging—particularly certain aspects of it—can be hard. Beyond around 20 years of age, basic aspects of human brain function decline. There is currently no way to fully and permanently prevent this process, but there are a variety of ways to slow the decline—and even compensate for the decline that does occur.

According to Professor Vishton, the strategies that he recommends to fight the effects of aging on the brain also have the potential to greatly enrich the quality of your life—and the function of your brain—at any age.

If you want to keep your brain young, then think of something that you’ve never done that you could do today. Ideally, it’s something you want to do or maybe have wanted to do for a long time. It should be an activity that you can perform in a single day or less. 

Many people would someday like to take a trip around the world . For right now, though, focus on something that can happen on a smaller time scale.

The possibilities are almost limitless. Take a lesson in how to play the electric guitar. Draw a self-portrait. Find a karaoke bar and sing in front of an audience. Write a poem. Ride a roller coaster. Figure out how to knock a hole in one of your walls and put in a new door. 

Go to a museum that you’ve been driving by for years, but never managed to visit. Take a sketchpad with you and draw one of the artworks that you see there. Reupholster a chair. Cook mole sauce from scratch. Anything will do as long as it is something you have never done before.

Scheduling Novelty

Once you’ve thought of your targeted novel activity, pull out a calendar, and write it on the first day of the next month. Before that month ends, do two things. First, do the activity. Once you’ve completed the activity, write “DONE” in capital letters on the date that you did it. 

The second thing you should do that month is to come up with another activity and write it on the first date of the next month. Continue to repeat this cycle.

“I should emphasize that you don’t have to do these activities well,” Professor Vishton said. “In fact, for reasons I’ll describe here, it’s best if you find the activity very challenging—mentally, and maybe even physically. It’s OK if you eventually start repeating these activities, but, for the moment, try to make it a brand-new activity every month.”

Cognitive Function Peak

To understand why cognitive neuroscience research suggests that this is a good way to fight age-related mental decline, let’s consider what happens to cause that decline. As we age, our brains shrink. 

Your brain grows in terms of size and the number of neurons until you are around two years old. The brain is programmed to greatly overproduce neurons during early development. 

One of the most important processes of brain development during childhood and even early adulthood involves the planned elimination of an enormous number of these neurons. This process, often referred to as neuronal pruning, is central to improving the function of the brain as we mature.

Around 20 years of age, the human brain seems to peak in terms of many of the basic functions that are assessed by cognitive tests. This is the time when most people are fastest in terms of their reaction time and in terms of how fast they can make simple decisions. 

Our ability to rapidly alternate between performing two different tasks is best around this age. Our ability to completely focus our attention on one location in space while ignoring other peripheral locations peaks as well.

If someone reads a list of three randomly selected words to you, you can easily repeat them back. If they make the list longer—say five words or nine words—the task will be harder. 

At some point, there will be a maximum number of words that you can simultaneously hold in your short-term memory. This maximum item span peaks around age 20 as well. As we age, all of these attributes slowly decline.

Therefore, brain function decline in terms of reaction time and quickly making decisions seems to decline after age 20. However, you can slow this decline by introducing additional novel activities into your schedule, which will simultaneously break up your routine and liven up your life!

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

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Slow Down Brain Function Decline and Follow Your Joy
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