Problems – Exercise for Your Brain

~ Theodore Rubin

When we consider how much we avoid problems and act as though we are cursed when faced with them, we miss an essential component of being human. Human beings LOVE to solve problems. In fact, left to our own devices, we invent them just to have something to do! (If you doubt it, turn on your TV and watch any reality or talk show. You will see people inventing problems on the spot.)

If we didn’t have problems to solve, we would likely have brains that look like those of our Neanderthal ancestors. Marilyn Albert, a Harvard University neurologist and director of gerontology research at Massachusetts General Hospital, studied more than 1,000 people ages 70 to 80. She has said, “Is mental exercise important for the brain? People used to ask me that years ago, and I would say we don’t have enough data one way or another. I don’t say that anymore. I tell them that’s what the data looks like: Use it or lose it.”

It turns out that the problems you’re complaining about could be the very things that ward off mental decline as you progress through life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, people do not lose massive numbers of brain cells as they age. Rather, the brain’s functions get rusty with disuse.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ronald Kotulak, scientists now realize that the brain actually organizes and constructs itself, something no other organ does. “At the core of this new knowledge is the plasticity factor, a term used to describe the brain’s amazing capacity to constantly change its structure and function in response to experiences coming from the outside,” said Kotulak.

The Seattle Longitudinal Study, started by K. Warner Schaie, now director of the Gerontology Center at Pennsylvania State University, found that, for those elders who maintain their mental sharpness, a few common components were evident. Many are available to you as part of your daily work:

· active engagement in reading, travel, cultural events, educational clubs and professional associations;

· a willingness to change;

· an ability to grasp new ideas quickly; and

· satisfaction with accomplishments.

Schaie and his colleague Sherry Willis found more good news in another study: even if mental activity is lost through inactivity, it can easily be reclaimed through retraining.

There has been much written and taught about “change management” in the work place. We continually try to package change as something that is good for the company and therefore good for the workers. In the long run, it may prove to be better for the workers.

In the groundbreaking bestseller, The World is Flat – a Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas L. Friedman tells us that perhaps the most critical factor for success in competing with workers across the globe (and we are no longer simply competing with workers in our own country) is the ability to learn. One of the most remarkable things problem-solving does is to sharpen our ability to learn.

We don’t like change that is imposed upon us. It’s often frustrating to have to learn a totally new skill set or worse, to have to go out and find a new job. When it’s happening, we feel victimized. But often it turns out to be an example of life doing for us what we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do for ourselves. Once the dust is settled and we have adapted to our new circumstances, we discover we are much better off.

You attract what you focus on. For mental acuity, begin focusing on problems and their solutions as a way to keep fit.

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