Saturday, May 16, 2009

New Places, New Faces

Throughout the blog I've emphasized the importance of breaking routines, and vacation time opens up rich possibilities. Go where you've never been before. Travel broadens, but not if you seek out the McDonald's in Paris or the shopping mall in Singapore. Make it a point to explore the visual, auditory, and olfactory differences a new place offers. Sample the local food and entertainment, and shop and travel the way the locals do. Try to avoid traveling in large tour groups, and really get to meet people in different cultures.

At every turn, traveling involves something novel for the senses. Spatial maps used for everyday navigation are suddenly unusable and new ones must be constructed. The stress you may feel taking in new sights, sounds, foods, and a foreign language is actually your brain moving into high gear! An afternoon spent talking with the owner of a small shop in a new place may be more memorable (and better for your memory) than going to yet another "must see" sight.

Improve your Home or Dinner Setting

Enhance your sensory environment at home. For example, change the dinner environment. As I've said, meals are not just about food. Candlelight, visually pleasing china and flowers, beautiful tablecloths, and music provide multisensory stimulation to link with the smells and flavors of food. When you don't have the time or money to indulge, try a new set of place mats or a vase of flowers, or use the good china once in a while—even when you're alone.

Enriching the sensory, social, and emotional environment surrounding meals feeds your brain, even though you may not be aware of it at the time. Conversely, when you strip life down to its basics, you deprive your senses. While eating a frozen dinner at a bare table with the TV on satisfies basic caloric needs, it doesn't do much for your olfactory or taste systems, and certainly the emotional impact and novelty factors are low.

Musical Chairs at the Dinner Table

At dinnertime, have everyone switch seats. In most families, everyone has his or her "own" seat, and it's remarkable how permanent these arrangements become. Switching seats changes whose "position" you occupy, who you relate to, your view of the room, and even how you reach for salt and pepper.

Like rearranging your desk, changing your seat at the dinner table provokes "social rearrangements." Each seat has associations attached to it—the kid's seat, the head of the household's seat. Simply by changing places you are challenging and reworking these timeworn associations.

Also, try eating your food in silence. You'll be surprised at how the foods you taste and the things you hear are greatly enhanced. You'll automatically slow down, savor the food, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, and hear a new ambience that conversation usually smothers.

The Fruit Gatherer

Each season, you can gather edible plants, fruits, and nuts in the wild—fiddlehead ferns, dandelions, wild asparagus, and grape leaves, various wild berries, mushrooms (careful!), chestnuts and wild peas. (If you don't know what things are, or how to prepare them, take a field guide to edible plants with you on your foraging trips.) Visit a pick-your-own orchard or farm to gather strawberries, blueberries, corn, or pumpkins. Make the "harvest" a social event by taking along kids or friends. Another variation is to shop without a list and plan a meal from what looks good at the market that day.

Searching for food in the wild prevents the brain from using the easy way out, and hones its ability to make fine discriminations. Is that round green thing a fiddlehead fern (good) or a skunk cabbage sprout (bad)? Without bins, packages, and labels, your brain is forced to pay attention to every cue available in the natural environment.

Neurobics at the Supermarket

Use your senses. Close your eyes and distinguish fruits by their smell or by the feel of their rinds. Use self-serve bins to buy small amounts of grains, cereals, or spices with different tastes, textures, or odors (health food stores are especially good sources).

Change your usual route through the aisles.

Ask the people at the meat, fish, or deli counters to help you choose something instead of just picking out prepackaged foods.

Change the way you scan the shelves. Stores are designed to have the most profitable items at eye level, and in a quick scan you really don't see everything that's there. Instead, stop in any aisle and look at everything displayed on the shelves, from top to bottom. If there's something you've never seen before, pick it up just to read the ingredients and think about it (you don't have to buy it). You've broken your routine and experienced something new.

Turn your World Upside Down

Take pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.

Your brain is quite literally of two minds when it comes to processing visual information. The analytical, "verbal" part of your brain (sometimes called the "left brain') tries to label an object after just a brief glance: "table," "chair," "child " The "right brain," in contrast, perceives spatial relationships and uses nonverbal cues. When you look at a familiar picture right side up, your left brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention to other things. When the picture is upside down, the quick labeling strategy doesn't work—and your right-brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture. The strategy of looking at things upside down is a key component for awakening the latent artist in us, as described by Betty Edwards in the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Bring your Family to Work

This is not by any means a daily activity and will get you fired from your job. But sometimes your work has a party and there is no harm in bringing a family companion like your child. Everything you take for granted—the pictures in the halls, the machines you use, your familiar coworkers—are seen anew through another person. It’s a novel experience that does wonders not only for your child but for your own neural networks as well.

The simple act of making introductions fosters the all-important social interactions that we know are crucial for a healthy brain. Introducing your child to your coworkers exercises your abilities with names far more effectively than sitting at your desk and trying to memorize them.