Remember when you were a kid and you spent hours with your friends building forts out of couch cushions and sheets? To you it was far more than a feeble fort – it was a grand castle that you ruled over tirelessly. Your blanket was your cloak and your baseball hat was your jewel-studded crown. While your parents may not have had a clue what an elaborate fantasy you had crafted inside that tiny little fort, it was very real to you. It is amazing how vivid the human imagination can be. Whether we are playing with friends as children or inventing new gadgets, the ability to think outside the box is vital to keeping your brain agile.
The Mental Fountain of Youth
Just as muscles will atrophy without use, your brain will become less responsive to change the less you use it. As you age, your mental fitness will fade as well. Some causes of this are unavoidable, but others you can help prevent by keeping your mind sharp with continued learning and mental flexibility. While there are many ways to keep your brain healthy, they should all be paired with a sense of childlike curiosity and creativity. Just as you stretch your muscles after a workout, you must stretch your mind as well. When people become stuck with tunnel vision or entrenched in their ideas and beliefs, they halt the learning process. In order to grow and learn you need to be able to keep an open mind. If you are unwilling to believe that you could build a majestic tower out of couch cushions and blankets, how will you ever be able to think up a remarkable design as an architect?
A study from the University of California, Davis, published in the Scientific American suggests that when our curiosity is piqued, changes in the brain prime us to learn about the subject at hand, but it also allows us to intake more incidental information as well. The study showed that more curious minds showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that is involved in the creation of memories. And the more curious a person was, the more his or her brain engaged. Similar to how music helps people access memories, curiosity helps create them. A Seattle Longitudinal Study carried out by Warner Schaie and Sherry Willis came to the discovery that a flexible mental attitude was one of the most important ingredients to staving off intellectual decline among people well into their 70s and 80s.
But it’s not just book smarts that come along with an open mind. Keeping curiosity and creativity as a part of your mindset is also an important part of psychological health. These may be the characteristics that breed ingenuity, but they also translate into a greater ability to forgive and to move on from difficult periods in your life. Being able to tap into a more flexible mind means that you are able to see solutions or alternatives where a rigid mind could not.
So instead of watching your children and grandchildren play from afar, get down with them and use your imagination. Crawl in their fort with them and tell them what it is you see. It’s okay if you feel silly, there is always a little discomfort in growth. But we have a lot to learn from the creative and curious experts that children are.