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Learning: Exercise for the Brain

Everyone knows that in order for a muscle to get stronger it has to be exercised routinely, not only by incrementally increasing the weight, but also by exercising it in a variety of different ways so that it is consistently challenged. Our brains are no different. From the second we are born our brains are eagerly engaged, actively absorbing and processing what is going on around us.

Throughout childhood, this continues as we look around trying to make sense of our world and how we fit in to it. Children are accustomed to continually learning new things, often failing at tasks until they’ve practiced enough to have them mastered. This is expected. But, as we get further along into adulthood, many of us lose our curiosity and excitement around learning something new. We fall in to our strict schedules and routines, primarily engaging passively in what we already know. Though our familiarity with our already mastered tasks is comfortable, we do not gain any of the fantastic benefits associated with learning something novel. The following are some of the top reasons why learning is so important for us.

Learning is fun. Our children are good reminders of this. Remember when you were little and you first learned to skip? You didn’t care if you were perfectly coordinated, you just got excited at the idea that you could move your feet in a way that somewhat resembled a skipping pattern and you laughed at how fun it was! Because children are so much less inhibited than adults, they know how to have more fun. When we stop taking ourselves so seriously, believing we need to have it all figured out, we open ourselves up to unlimited possibilities for having fun by learning something that excites us.

Learning Promotes Personal Growth. Learning something new reminds us how much we still don’t know. As anyone who has felt foolish as they tried something new for the first time can attest, attempting to master something in which you have no previous experience is certainly humbling! Remaining humble is important because it keeps us more open and willing to experience new things, which directly facilitates personal growth.

Learning Boosts Confidence. Learning something new boosts confidence for a couple of key reasons. First, it gets us engaged with ourselves, fostering a deeper connection and sense of self. As we know ourselves better, and enjoy ourselves more, we develop more self-confidence. Second, when we learn a new skill, it gives us a sense of accomplishment. We have mastered something we did not know before and we can add it to our repertoire of knowledge. We take pride in our knowledge and accomplishments, both of which are associated with confidence.

Learning Keeps The Mind Sharp. Current research shows that engaging in already mastered activities or more passive activities, does not yield the same positive cognitive benefit to the brain that learning something unfamiliar and mentally challenging accomplishes. In a randomly assigned study, Denise Park and colleagues found that adults who learned new skills showed improvement in memory compared to those who engaged in social activities or non-demanding activities at home. As Park puts it, “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside your enhancement zone.” *

The benefits to learning something new are far reaching. Letting go of our fear of failure and jumping in to try something completely novel not only benefits our brain, but it gets us more in touch with ourselves, increases our confidence, and incorporates a little more fun into our lives.

* Association for Psychological Science. “Learning new skills keeps an aging mind sharp.” Psychological Science. www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/learning-new-skills-keeps-an-aging-mind-sharp.html (accessed April 23,2016).

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