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How to give Your Brain a regular Work Out

Ian Gilbert, founder of Independent Thinking Ltd and author of The Compleat Thunks, explains how thinking can help us all to keep our brain working efficiently.

You can sum up millions of pounds of brain research in five words: “Use it or lose it.”

Ian_Gilbert_British_Council croppedIf we stop using a muscle, it weakens – especially as we get older. The brain is the same. We ‘grow’ our brains through the connections we make between brain cells. We do this by learning new things, though no-one is sure how many trillions of connections one person can actually make.

The trouble is, a brain with so many connections is not efficient. To illustrate this, imagine going to a new town and coming to a road junction with many different roads. The first time you arrive there, you will grind to a halt while you think through all the possibilities.

To ensure we don’t grind to a halt in our daily lives, the brain will go through a process of weakening the connections that aren’t regularly used. This is a process called ‘neural pruning’.  What’s left after neural pruning, are the networks of connections, called ‘templates,’ that we use to efficiently go about our daily lives.

But what happens when, through age or illness (or both), we start to lose some of the connections that have seen us through most of our lives?

With the increase in the Western world in age-related neurological conditions, scientists are starting to turn their attention to what they call ‘neural reserve’ – the idea that you can build up resistance to the effects of age or disease

That is, you probably cannot build up resistance to age or disease, per se, but you can build resistance to their effects by having a rich network of neurological connections through a life of use. This means completing your school education, going through decent higher education (or equivalent), having an intellectually challenging job, via a stimulating range of hobbies and pastimes, and through other life experiences, even, according to the research, by living abroad. By all of these means, we are building capacity in our brains which we draw on when things start to go wrong.

In other words, use it or lose it!

One simple way to do this, if you fancy a break from The Telegraph crossword and from Susie Dent on Countdown is with a regular ‘Thunk.’

A Thunk is what appears to be a simple question but, when you start to really get your brain around it, you realise it involves quite complex thoughts that lead you in lots of different directions. Sometimes, a Thunk makes you realise there are no simple answers just different ways to examine an idea!

As an example, a ‘Thunk’ such as ‘Would you be twice as happy if you won the Lottery twice?’ throws up all sorts of questions about the nature of luck, life and happiness, and whether money can, indeed, buy you happiness at all.

Another Thunk to send your neural connections into overdrive is this: “If a robot waiter brings you a drink should you say ‘thank you’?” This encourages us to question manners, intelligence, employment, humanity and whether the future is all it’s cracked up to be!

So, make sure you use it and don’t lose it by giving your brain a daily work-out with a Thunk a day to help build up that neural reserve.

Compleat Thunks

Ian Gilbert is an educational innovator and founder of Independent Thinking Ltd. His latest book, ‘The Compleat Thunks,‘ is published by Crown House Publishing, and is available on Amazon.  


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