You have survived the 2007 shopping and eating season. Congratulations! Now it's time to shift gears and focus on 2008...whether you write down some New Year resolutions or contemplate some things that you want to let go of from last year and set intentions and goals for this year - as is a friend's tradition on the winter solstice.
To summarize the key findings of the last 20 years of neuroscience research on how to "exercise our brains", there are three things that we can strive for: novelty, variety and challenge. If we do these three things, we will build new connections in our brains, be mindful and pay attention to our environment, improve cognitive abilities such as pattern-recognition, and in general contribute to our lifelong brain health.
With these three principles of brain health in mind - novelty, variety and challenge - let me suggest a few potential New Years resolutions, perhaps some unexpected, that will help you make 2008 a year of Brain Health and Fitness:
1. 2008 Primaries and Elections: If you haven't yet done so, register to vote - active participation is good for your brain health. But, before rushing out to vote, take some time to think through the criteria you want to set up to evaluate who deserves your vote. Don't let politicians and their spin doctors set your agenda. Ask yourself, what matters most to me? What type of President do I think we need? Why? I personally find it quite intriguing that no candidate so far is resurrecting the "It is the economy, stupid" mantra, and proposing solid plans to get our economy back on track.
2. Next time out shopping: Don't let advertisers treat you as if you were Pavlov's Dog - remember the dog that was trained to salivate automatically every time a bell rang. There is a whole industry out there trying to make you buy stuff on impulse. Notice your reactions to a movie trailer or a TV ad Resist. Be the true "Decider". For bonus points, once you learn to identify and manage your own buying impulses, try explaining this to your kids...
3. Reading habits: If you usually read non-fiction, try something new this season. Pick up a good fiction book. Or vice versa. For bonus points, subscribe to or simply read a new magazine, perhaps one that your partner craves? It will help you understand another perspective.
4. Learn about the Brain: Pick up one of the books in the Science section in your bookstore. In the unlikely scenario that you read as many brain-related books as I do, pick up some Russian poetry book and let's discuss this instead.
5. At work: Find, or create, an intellectually and socially stimulating new job for yourself at your current workplace or a new one. Engaging work has been shown to contribute to lifelong cognitive performance. At the very least, go out of your way to make whatever job you have more stimulating: try talking to a new colleague or client everyday and learn a new thing about them. You will not remember everything, but surely more than if you don't even try.
6. Gratitude vs. the Subprime mess: With increasing coverage of economic woes, the subprime mess, recession risk, the falling dollar and a ballooning deficit, it is easy to lose perspective and become depressed. Which doesn't help anyone, much less our brains. To put things in perspective, it pays off to devote some time to keep a Gratitude Journal and simply scribble a few notes a day. For bonus points: do this while you are watching TV news and share your notes with your partner.
7. Cultivate your Critical-thinking abilities: Ask yourself, "Where is the evidence?" at least once a day - see points 1&2 above. Don't just believe this article. Even if it had been endorsed by 20 Harvard Medical School researchers and doctors, nothing substitutes your own brain in action. And the more you practice, the more you refine your judgment.
8. Participate in creating a better environment. Our planet, our families, our communities, our schools, all can benefit from our help. What project do you care enough to commit some of your time to in 2008? If you have school age kids, have you considered joining the school board?.
9. Computer-based programs: With the growing number of "brain training" products, you may be thinking of giving one a try, either for you or for a loved one. As mentioned in point number 2 above, it makes sense to do some research before making a purchase.
10. Where to start? OK, now you have read many suggestions, resolve to keep at least one of them...which one will you choose?.