My mother, God rest her soul, was a smart woman in her day. She was an excellent student up through her high school graduation. She could calculate numbers quickly. She could spell any word. She read a lot, and she remembered almost every detail she either read about or came across in real life. My mother could tell you what she’d worn on her 10th wedding anniversary, what flowers my dad had sent her or how long he stayed in the doghouse for not sending her flowers, and what their phone number had been at the time.
As she got older, however, her knowledge did not stay current. She had little curiosity about the modern world. Her attitude and her mind became brittle. Once, before dementia had its ugly way with her, I’d encouraged my mother to go to a class at the senior center near her home. It was good to learn new things, I’d said.
She squelched my enthusiasm with her response. “I already know everything I want to know,” she said, her tone withering.
And I suspect this mindset contributed to the more rapid decline of her mental acuity.
According to research, it definitely did. The old truism “You learn something new every day” could be taken as a prescription for maintaining mental sharpness. Learning something new, in fact, requires the physical brain to keep up, to rewire itself in order to accommodate the fresh concept you are learning. Current research by the National Institutes of Health shows that something like learning to play a musical instrument reorganizes the way the brain makes connections. This can counteract the reality that, as we age, the brain changes. It shrinks in volume and weight. Our cognitive capabilities naturally decline. We know that diet, exercise and our genes all play a part in the rate of the overall aging process. While we cannot alter our heredity, we can choose to protect our grey matter with healthy lifestyle choices, including vigorous intellectual pursuits.
Hence the advice to senior citizens to solve the daily crossword puzzle and the Sudoku and the word jumble, which are simple ways to keep the brain firing. Or, unlike my mother, to take a class. Taking a class in a school-like setting not only exercises the brain, but can also improve the more complex mental functions of problem solving and reasoning. Attending a communal class can keep social skills sharp, too. Maybe learning something new every day can make 80 the new 60.
Of course, when we actually say “You learn something new every day,” it’s usually in reaction to some new fact that surprises us, rather than a deliberate attempt to expand our horizons. “Well, don’t that beat all,” we are saying. The "something new" we just learned was unexpected, and has maybe even blown our minds a little. And that is good. Intentionally learning something new every day, however, is even better. It turns out that daily mind-blowing keeps our brains supple and alert.
Learning something new every day is not just for old people. Young brains also benefit from the challenge of new knowledge and new viewpoints. Do we not include “something new” in the traditional happiness formula for a bride’s wedding day outfit? Do we not celebrate each new word a toddler masters? Lifelong learning is as essential to health as lifelong loving.
So this year, challenge your brain. Make it work for you. Read about the Renaissance. Take tai chi. Figure out how to change the water filter on the fridge. Study up on how to converse in another language. Join Twitter and tweet away. Watch real birds. Even something as small as brushing your teeth with your left hand instead of your right, while not exactly new knowledge, will give your cognitive muscles a workout.
When an older friend told me she was learning to play the harp, something she had wanted to do ever since she was little, I wanted to hug her for being such an excellent role model. Plucking the strings of a harp or becoming a blogger or taking up knitting or archery or deep-sea fishing can all be construed as gifts we give to our mind’s longevity. By learning something new every day, we do ourselves a favor. More than a New Year’s resolution, it’s a lifetime resolution. I honor my mother’s memory, but I’m betting we never really know everything we’d want to know.