Ever try driving with mittens on? Sniffing vanilla or peppermint first thing in the morning? Brushing your teeth or eating with the “wrong” hand? Choosing potatoes at the grocery with your eyes closed?
No, it’s not a Dr. Seuss story. A Duke University scientist and a New York writer say the brain needs novelty and multisensory experiences to stay sharp. They propose those activities as part of their brain fitness regimen, which they call “neurobics.”
Dr. Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin lay it out in “Keep Your Brain Alive,” throwing in 83 exercises to get the brain’s cerebral cortex and hippocampus off the couch and out the door. The book has gone into a fourth printing since it hit bookstores April 1.
Katz and Rubin said daily life has the potential to be a “neurobic brain gym,” satisfying their program’s two daily prerequisites: Experience the unexpected and enlist all the senses.
“It is not about tricks, or about coming up with a few things that will help you remember a list of names, but how to live a life that is brain-healthy,” said Katz, a Duke neurobiology professor who runs a brain research lab.
Some exercises are simple: taking a different way to work, switching seats at meals and shopping at a farmers’ market. Others might make people wonder about your sanity: turning your desk calendar and clock upside down, wearing earplugs to breakfast, getting into your car and starting it with eyes closed.
Neurobics, a synthesis of recent brain research findings and Katz’s own research at Duke, wakes up the brain’s “attentional circuits” to start the flow of growth-promoting molecules called neurotrophins, according to their book.
Neurotrophins create new circuits that improve memory and creative and logical thinking. The brain produces neurotrophins when stimulated by novelty and experiences that engage the emotions and two or more senses, Katz said.
“Doing daily activities in a slightly different way can have a very positive effect,” he said.
Katz, 42, said he and Rubin, who is close to 60, were inspired to write the book after watching Katz’s young children.
“It’s remarkable how much more they rely on all their senses,” he said. “They use touch and hearing, smell and taste to learn about the world.
“Adults tend to abstract things,” Katz said. “You look at something and figure you know everything you need to know. . . . That’s a kind of impoverished way of looking at the world.”
Neurobics can be practiced at the beginning and end of the day, while commuting, at work and during meals and leisure time. Katz said the book’s 83 exercises are just a start. There is a Web site, www.keepyourbrainalive.com, where people can share other neurobic exercises.
For people reaching advanced age, the exercises can reduce the inevitable decline in brain processing that occurs, Katz said.
“When you age, you want to have a healthy body, and you want to have a brain that won’t stop you from doing a lot of things,” he said.
Hallmarks of people who age well always have been a willingness to break routines and attempt the new --the very same cornerstones of neurobics, he said.
“They decide to hike the Appalachian Trail at 75, or take up a new hobby or language,” Katz said.
“They’re always living a life where they’re taking on new mental challenges, or not falling into the routine of watching TV every day: woodworking or gardening, volunteering at Habitat for Humanity. It’s non-routine and very good for the brain.”
“Keep Your Brain Alive,” by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin, Workman Publishing Co., New York, $8.95.