Why staying curious is good for your brain
Curiosity is a key part of what it means to be human. It's also essential for your brain health.
Cats gave curiosity a bad name. But that really isn’t fair. Staying curious about the world around us keeps our brains engaged, and learning more can exercise the brain in ways that create new brain cells and build new neural connections.
Alongside the other braincare behaviours, staying curious is an essential part of any braincare routine. This article will explore the reasons behind that, and how learning new things can help your brain as it gets older.
Think of learning, and there’s a good chance your mind is taken to classrooms, whiteboards, homework, and exams. It’s a shame that our society isolates learning as something that only happens in a structured, dedicated environment. And as one that stops as soon as you’re an adult.
Of course, that idea is nonsense. At what point in life do we stop taking in new information? We might not be catching the school school any longer, but we’re always learning. And we should stay curious.
Because as well as having an obvious outcome of simply knowing more, staying curious and actively learning has a hidden outcome. It keeps your brain healthy, and crucially, more resistant to cognitive decline.
Most of our brain development happens before the age of 25. But it doesn’t have to be all downhill from there. By actively challenging our brains, and experiencing new things, we can keep healthy, flexible, and plastic (in this case, that’s a good thing). It’s called neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to adapt and form new connections.
What is neuroplasticity?
Your brain is made up of approximately 86 billion brain cells, all working in unison. Neuroplasticity—which is also sometimes referred to as brain plasticity—is the process of creating new pathways or connections and discarding the ones that we don’t use anymore.
There are two main ways that we can do this.
Functional plasticity—the brain's ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas
Structural plasticity—the brain's ability to physically restructure as a result of new experiences and learning.
Why is neuroplasticity important?
But what’s the point of this? Neuroplasticity is determined by everything we experience, so it makes sense that most of this happens in the early part of our lives, when everything is new. Imagine your brain is a toddler in a new environment: looking around, exploring every corner, picking things up—those are all creating new neural pathways.
Neuroplasticity is essential in repairing damage to the brain, after, for example, a head trauma. This would render some of the existing neural pathways unusable, affecting associated body functions. But over time, healthy parts of the brain recreate pathways to restore some of these functions.
And losing neural pathways doesn’t only happen after head traumas or strokes. While the average human brain will grow and develop until the age of 25, after that, it can slow down, and start to lose more connections than it creates. This is where neuroplasticity becomes even more important. It’s not only relevant in extreme circumstances. Neuroplasticity can help us look after our brains, and our overall health, in our everyday lives.
It is, however, necessary to note that there are certain areas of the brain that are limited in their ability to adapt. Parts that play an essential role in speech, language, and movement in particular may not be able to recover.
How to learn new things every day
Once we’ve spent a bit of time out of school, it can be easy to forget how to learn new things. But there are all sorts of ways we can incorporate learning into our daily routines, no times tables needed.
Crosswords, sudokus, Wordle—whatever piques your interest, doing a puzzle is excellent to keep your brain in shape. By working on your verbal, non-verbal, and spatial reasoning, you can stimulate parts of the brain that you don’t use in other situations, and help increase your neuroplasticity.
Whether you’re brushing your teeth or picking up a punnet of blueberries off the supermarket shelf, try doing it with your non-dominant hand. It can stimulate your brain, strengthening neural pathways that aren’t used that often. This category of exercises is known as neurobics, and challenges your brain by requiring active concentration, rather than letting yourself go through the motions.
If you’ve been waiting for some good news, here it is—going on holiday is good for your brain. Not only is it fun, essential for emotional well-being, and great for your personality, travelling can also increase neuroplasticity.
New places, new food, new language, and new culture all expose you to experiences outside your comfort zone. You learn by necessity, forcing the brain to problem-solve and adapt, and your neurons to fire in new ways.
Learning new languages
Learning a new language is a daunting undertaking, but if you’re serious about increasing neuroplasticity, there’s nothing quite like it. Every word is an opportunity for a new connection in the brain.
Take the word “apple” for example. The brain creates a new neural pathway between the visual of an apple, the word in your native language, the sound of the word in the new language, as well as the spelling, and then has to commit all of that to a memory that you can access the information whenever you need it. It’s a lot of work for your brain, but the payoff is worth it.
In this study of exchange students, five months of intensive language study resulted in an increase in the density of grey matter in the brain. Grey matter is one of the most important regions of the brain, associated with attention, memory, emotions, and of course, language. By increasing the density of grey matter we can help maintain normal function in these areas as we get older.
And, in this study, adult language-learning was shown to strengthen white matter—part of the brain that helps with communication and connectivity between different neural regions.
Learning a language is perhaps the classic example of a neuroplasticity exercise, but learning anything outside of your comfort zone provides enough exercise to increase neuroplasticity and change the very structure of your brain.
So find something that interests you. Then find out more about it. Pick up a guitar, learn to roll your own sushi, or try that crossword. Stay curious—your brain will thank you.