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Learn Something New To Boost Your Brain

One thing the last year’s lockdowns have taught us is that it is never too late to pick up a new skill. From baking to learning a language, many of us have been using our time to try out something new – and it’s been time well spent! In his podcast, Just One Thing, Dr Michael Mosley investigates the growing research that shows the benefit learning new skills can have on our bodies and brains.

What are the benefits of trying something new?

With a busy life, finding time to learn a new skill may take some doing, but the evidence is clear that it has a wide range of benefits for your brain. Not only does it provide you with an opportunity to concentrate on the task at hand, root yourself in the moment and calm down that thinking brain – it also has the potential to subtly and very importantly reshape your brain and the way you think about yourself.

Learning a new skill will give your brain a workout in ways that are measurable. If you’re challenging your brain with something it has never done before – it can reduce stress, create new brain connections, get your body in a state of flow, release dopamine, make you happier, better at juggling tasks and potentially smarter, too!

Life drawing is one of many skills that increases brain power
Learning something new can be one of the most effective ways of reducing stress and calming down your body.

Getting in the zone

It may seem counter-intuitive to add more to your to-do list when you’re stressed, but there is evidence that learning something new can be one of the most effective ways of reducing stress and calming down your body. When you’re focusing on the task at hand, you can get into a state described as “flow”, where you are completely submerged in the moment. It calms down the frontal part of your brain which usually helps you to analyse and question your own behaviour so you become less judgemental of your actions.

Rewiring your brain and keeping it healthy

Not only does learning a new skill help your mental health, it can actually change the way your brain is wired – helping encourage the growth of new brain cells and new connections. We’re often under the impression that learning something new or picking up new hobbies, like learning to play the piano or juggling with words in French, is something we do as children when our brains can best adapt to new things. But new encouraging research is showing that our brain’s plasticity is retained well into old age – far later than once thought – and taking up the challenge of learning at any age brings a wealth of benefits.

What type of activity should you choose?

Prof. Alan Gow from Heriot-Watt University has been researching the impact of new activities on our brains. Specifically, whether taking up a new activity can help our thinking and memory skills as we grow older.

It is activities that involve a combination of physical, mental and social elements that seem to be particularly beneficial – and the key is finding one that is a good fit for you. “What might make a change in my thinking skills might not make a change in yours,” says Prof. Gow. If you’re more engaged in the task, it’s been shown that you get more cognitive benefits. So if you are trying something new, try incorporating elements that make it social, active and mentally challenging.

There are a wealth of benefits for trying out something new, even in old age – from improving executive functions, to improving the number of your brain cells, to more psychological benefits that have surprisingly wide reaching effects on how you see yourself and interact with others.

So what should you try?

Life Drawing. Drawing involves motor coordination, 3D mapping and spatial orientation. It may seem like a nice, easy, relaxing activity but you really are doing something good for your brain, particularly if you don’t draw the same thing every time. Each new set-up and subject will present a new challenge and work your brain in new ways, eg from improving your spatial awareness to your physical coordination to lowering your stress response. And you don’t need to be good at it to get the benefits!

Learn a Language. Another great activity is learning a language. Not only is it a thrill to be able to communicate with people from all over the world, even if it’s just saying hello, but it really is a fabulous workout for your brain. Scientists suggest it can have far more cognitive benefits than brain training tasks like doing sudoku or the crossword, because it requires you to juggle new concepts and encode new information in your brain. Studies have shown it can literally change your brain. Recent research is showing that adults can be almost as good at learning a language as children. While children are better at picking up languages innately, adults excel at other things. It has been proven that your way with words only gets better with age – and could have a wealth of benefits for picking up a new language.

Does learning a new language improve your brain power?

Dr Michael Mosley investigates the scientific benefits of learning a new language.

To find out more, listen to Just One Thing: Learn a New Skill.

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