While we will have all heard the expression “you learn something new every day", how often, as adults, is learning a conscious choice?
Until the age of 16, children actively embody the phrase. Most days, in fact, they will be taught plenty of new things. Many will choose to continue that learning once compulsory school ends with further studies at colleges and universities, and then, once they enter the working world, a new form of learning begins.
But there comes a time once we are comfortable and established in our jobs when that active learning tethers off. Sure, we will pick up new ideas, facts and skills along the way, but how often are we pushing ourselves to learn new skills or process new information?
The latest online lecture from the Sea of Culture Foundation explored just that. The foundation is the brainchild of Sheikha Rowda bint Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan, who launched the cultural organisation to promote the development of knowledge and skills through an integrated literary and artistic programme.
Part of its digital offering includes a weekly lecture on a diverse range of topics, the second of which took place on Monday night. Hosted by Razan Nabulsi and Zinah Madi, co-founders and directors of Abu Dhabi’s Dots and Links for Skills Development Centre, the lecture explored how we could all become a little smarter.
But what does it mean to be smart? It’s a combination, Madi explained, of the brain’s ability to store information as well as how it processes it. “We all come with different tools,” she explained, “and we will all have our own individual weaknesses.”
The path to becoming smarter and maximising our brain power is identifying that weakness, she explained, and learning how to build upon it.
The model of processing new and known information is made up of seven key factors: attention, working memory, process speed, logic and reasoning, auditory processing, visual processing and long-term memory. These processes are followed by our brain whenever we are required to carry out the most basic of tasks – speak, write, spell, draw and so on.
Most children and adults will have at least one weakness among those seven key functions, and that weakness will affect how they handle things in day-to-day life. For example, most children who struggle with reading will have a weakness with auditory processing, Madi explained, the ability to recognise and break down the phonetic sound of words. Once that weakness has been identified, the brain can be trained in that area.
But brain-training is not just something that should be done by children. You might be surprised to learn that the average adult’s cognitive skills are at their peak during their mid to late twenties. After the age of 30, the cognitive decline starts if we don’t take active steps to challenge our brains.
“The brain's constant ability to change and adapt is known as neuroplasticity,” Nabulsi explained. Within our brains, there are millions of tiny pathways that allow us to connect thoughts and feelings, and as we get older, we tend to follow the same well-trodden paths within our brains when we think and process information.
But in order for our brains to grow and for us to become smarter, we need to create new pathways that challenge the way our minds work.
“If we are to create neuropaths in the brain we need to feel the pressure,” Nabulsi said. “We call it the mental sweat. If you don’t feel mental sweat, then we are not challenging our brains.”
Learning to play an instrument or speak a new language are two great ways to create these new neuropaths. These two things require us to use all the parts of our brain that allow us to process new information, and in turn create new pathways as we find ways to memorise information and use it in the future.
“You can also try something as simple as brushing your teeth with your opposite hand,” Nabulsi said. “This simple act will break us out of a habit and cause our brain to create a new neuropath.
“Reading is also so important. We teach children to read and reinforce [the idea] to do it regularly, but sometimes we do not do that ourselves,” she said. “One simple act can increase our vocabulary, our comprehension and our attention skills. It requires us to stay on task, to remember what we are reading and to understand it, and make connections with memories.”
It is also vital that humans get enough sleep to power our brains – at all ages. “When you sleep, your brain is actually very busy and not just dreaming,” Nabulsi said. “It is the time for your brain to get organised, to decide which memories from the day we need to hold on to, and which ones we don’t.”
The average adult should be aiming for between seven and nine hours per night, while school-age children should be getting around 10 hours. For babies, 16 to 18 hours' sleep per day is vital for brain development.
Eating healthily and exercising regularly are also important for our brain health, Nabulsi adds. “Foods such as fish, coffee, blueberries, nuts, oranges and eggs are some of the best things you can eat, along with dark chocolate.”
To really maximise brain power, Nabulsi recommends carrying out a cognitive skills assessment, which can be done online or through Dots and Links. Brain training can then be used to target the areas that need a little help.
“Brain training should always be individualised and carried out one-to-one,” she said. “As training goes on, exercises should become more challenging. Think of it like lifting weights, but for our minds.”
The Sea of Culture Foundation online lectures take place each Monday in June at 8pm. Next week’s topic is “The art of expression: Why creative expression should be part of our daily lives and how it helps foster the spirit of community".
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