makes an exercise Neurobic?
Throughout the course of every day, your brain is activated by your
senses, and you encounter new stimuli all the time. Why aren't these
Neurobic activities? What is it about the specific things we suggest
that makes them neurobic?
# 3 Brushing Roulette
... Starting and Ending the Day
illustrated by David Suter ©1999
To begin with,
not everything that's novel or new provides the kind or strength of
stimulation that is necessary to activate new brain circuits
and enhance neurotrophin production. For example, if you normally
write with a pen and one day choose to write everything in pencil,
you've broken your routine and are doing something new. So, in some
small way, you've changed the patterns of activity in the parts of
your brain activated by touching. But such a small change wouldn't
recruit new sensory associations important enough to engage the circuitry
required to really exercise your brain.
this with deciding one day to change the hand you normally write with.
If you are right handed, controlling a pen is normally the responsibility
of the cortex on the left side of your brain. When you change to writing
left handed, the large network of connections, circuits, and brain
areas involved in writing with your left hand--which are normally
rarely used-- are now activated on the right side of your brain. Suddenly
your brain is confronted with an engaging task that's interesting,
challenging , fun and potentially frustrating.
multi-sensory associations, and doing something novel that is important
or engaging to you --these are the key conditions for a genuine Neurobic exercise.
To be more
To be neurobic, an exercise should do one or more of the following:
Involve one or more of your senses in a novel context.
You can use additional senses to do an ordinary task by blunting the
sense normally used. For instance:
for work or take a shower with your eyes closed.
Eat a meal with your family in silence. Use only visual cues.
two or more senses in unexpected ways:
a specific piece of music while smelling a particular aroma.
Engage your attention. To stand out from the background
of everyday activities something has to be unusual, fun, surprising
or evoke one of your basic emotions like happiness, love or anger:
Go camping for
Take your child, spouse or parent to your work for the day.
Break a routine activity in an unexpected, novel way (novelty
just for it's own sake is not highly neurobic).
Take a completely
new route to work. Shop at a farmer's market instead of a supermarket.
Completely rearrange your office and desktop
a Neurobic exercise works.
... How Neurobics Works
by David Suter ©1999
Here's an example
we use in the book of Jane returning home from work and entering her
apartment with her eyes closed. What is actually happening in her
brain that makes these few minutes of her day a Neurobic exercise.
reached into her pocketbook and fished inside for the keys to her
apartment. "Did I forget them?! No, here they are. She felt their
shapes to figure out which one would open the top lock.
keys are in the depths of her handbag, which is filled with dozens
of different objects--eyeglass case, lipstick, tissues--each with
a different texture and shape. Instead of using vision to quickly
find the keys, as she might routinely do, she relies now on her sense
getting into her apartment is important to her, her brain's attentional
and emotional circuits are alert and active as she touches the hard,
smooth exterior of her lipstick case, moves past the soft feel of
tissues and eventually identifies the keys. In her brain, long-dormant
associations are being reactivated between the areas of her cortex
that process touch, areas in the visual part of her cortex that hold
the mental "pictures" of objects, and areas of the brain that stores
the names of objects.
reactivation causes specific groups of nerve cells to become more
active in an unusual pattern for Jane. This in turn can activate the
cells' neurotrophin production and strengthen and build another set
of connections in her brain's "safety net".
took her two tries until she heard the welcome click of the lock opening.
placing a key in a lock uses a "motor memory"--an unconscious "map"
in the parts of our brains that control movement--in conjunction with
vision, which provides an ongoing feedback that allows us to sense
where parts of our body are in space (this is called the proprioceptive
sense). But this time Jane is trying to fit a key into a lock using
the motor map in conjunction with her tactile, not visual, sense.
And this non-routine action is activating and reactivating seldom-used
nerve connections between her sense of touch and her proprioceptive
the wall lightly with her fingertips, she moved to the closet on
the right, found it and hung up her coat. She turned slowly and
visualized in her mind the location of the table holding her telephone
and answering machine
days, and in most situations, Jane, like the rest of us, makes her
way through the world using sight as a guide. Over time, her visual
system has constructed a spatial "map" of her world in various parts
of the brain. Her other senses of touch and hearing have also been
tied into these maps, but these non-visual connections are rarely
used in this situation. Today, however, Jane is using her sense of
touch to trigger a spatial memory of the room in order to navigate
through it. The touch pathways that access her spatial maps, usually
inactive, are now critically important for accomplishing this simple
task and unexpectedly get exercised. And the same holds true for her
she headed in that direction, hoping to avoid the sharp edge of
the coffee table by smelling the birthday roses...and hoping to
have some messages from her family waiting on her machine.
Jane's olfactory system is kicking into high gear to do something
it rarely does„help smell her way through the world. The olfactory
system has a direct line into the hippocampus, which is the area that
constructs spatial maps of the world. The odor of the roses is working
at several brain levels. The emotional association of roses with her
birthday, combined with an important emotional goal of getting to
her answering machine and retrieving messages from her family, makes
them a strong, meaningful stimulus. Now Jane is constructing a strong
new association--not only are flowers something that smell good, and
make you feel good, but they can show you where you are in part of
your world (and start the production of brain food in another set
of brain connections ).
it was. By spending just a few minutes getting into her apartment
with her eyes closed while doing all the things she normally would
do when coming home, Jane had engaged literally dozens of new or rarely
used brain pathways. Synapses between nerve cells were strengthened
by these novel and challenging activities. And in response to their
enhanced activity, some of Jane's brain cells were beginning to produce
more brain growth molecules, like neurotrophins.
as a result of the exercise a small but significant change has occurred
in Jane's brain. New sensory associations like the feel of the leather
armchair and the smell of the birthday roses remained with her as
part of her brain's vocabulary when she entered the living room the