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The Power of New!

To keep your brain young, try new things with all 8½ of your intelligences.

This article appeared in our October 2004 issue.

The big health story of the last decade is that there is much we can do to keep our brains young and healthy and stave off memory loss as we age. The brain, we now know, remains plastic and continues to form new connections and even new cells into adulthood. One key to a healthy brain is a healthy cardiovascular system, so regular physical exercise is important. But there’s more. Just as exercise develops and maintains the muscles, the development and maintenance of brain connections depends on challenge. As Paul Takahashi, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, reports, “All types of mental activity encourage the formation of new neural connections, but the most intense connections come with new tasks or experiences.” Thus, a brain-saving mantra might be, “News it or lose it!”

Once people develop Alzheimer’s or dementia, the existing neural pathways deteriorate and new connections rarely form, so it is important to use mental functions regularly before they deteriorate. Mental exercise cannot stop serious brain disease, says Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology and cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “But the rest of us, with milder issues, can probably benefit.”

Indeed, a recent study of aging directed by Joe Verghese, M.D., at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, found that reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing are all associated with lower risk of dementia.

To make the most of this new research, keep in mind that each of us possesses at least eight and a half kinds of intelligence. These intelligences constitute the ways we take in, retain and manipulate information, and demonstrate our understandings to ourselves and to others, argues Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard and author of the modern classic Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Tuning in to our many intelligences is a fine way to know ourselves better and to chart a path into the infinite variety of experiences that can promote healthy neural function and prevent cognitive decline. These exercises, adapted from Gardner’s work, help access the power of new! 

Naturalist Intelligence…

is the ability to recognize and categorize nature, such as plants and animals. To develop it,

  • learn the names of all the plants in your garden or in the park;
  • observe the constellations;
  • visit a zoo, botanical garden, or observatory;
  • play with or observe your pets;
  • collect autumn leaves or dry flowers;
  • set up a bird feeder and learn the names of the birds that come;
  • pay attention to the changing seasons;
  • visit a natural history museum;
  • read a book about a natural phenomenon that interests you.

Linguistic Intelligence…

is sensitivity to the meaning of words, including word order, sound, rhythm, inflection, context, phonology, and syntax. To develop it

  • read a book and relate the story to a friend, or join a book club;
  • write a poem;
  • keep a journal of your thoughts;
  • play word games or do crossword puzzles;
  • read the newspaper;
  • talk about your day with someone
  • learn a new word every day and use it in conversation.

Intrapersonal Intelligence…

is access to one’s own feelings. To develop it,

  • spend time alone;
  • meditate or reflect;
  • read a self-help book;
  • write down your goals and plans;
  • record and analyze your dreams;
  • talk to a counselor or therapist;
  • do something that makes you feel good about yourself.

Musical Intelligence…

is sensitivity to pitch, melody, rhythm, timbre, and the emotions sounds evoke. To develop it,

  • go to musical performances;
  • sing, even in the shower or while driving;
  • learn to play or practice a musical instrument;
  • listen to a type of music you’ve never heard before;
  • make up your own song;
  • try to identify all the instruments playing in a given song;
  • actually listen to the birds when they sing outside your window;
  • learn to read music;
  • remember when you first heard a song and how it made you feel.

Interpersonal Intelligence…

is the ability to recognize the temperaments, motivations, and intentions of others. To develop it,

  • People-watch;
  • imagine how your spouse, friend, or boss feels in a given situation;
  • listen when people tell you how they feel;
  • strike up a conversation with someone next to you in line;
  • talk to people with backgrounds different from your own;
  • meet new people;
  • volunteer or tutor;
  • read a biography or autobiography.

Spatial Intelligence…

is the ability to perceive the world accurately and transform, modify, and re-create that perception. To develop it,

  • sculpt in clay;
  • draw or paint objects in front of you;
  • read a map or draw a map for a friend;
  • practice parallel parking;
  • do jigsaw puzzles or mazes;
  • play with blocks with your child;
  • Daydream;
  • observe paintings with attention to brushstrokes, texture, and style.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence...

is the ability to use the body in highly differentiated and skilled ways for both expressive and goal-directed purposes. To develop it,

  • play a sport;
  • take up a martial art such as judo, karate, or tae kwon do;
  • learn a craft such as sewing, embroidery, or crocheting;
  • dance (even if it’s just around your living room when you’re alone);
  • Play golf, swim, sail, or shoot baskets in your driveway;
  • use your hands to garden, cook an intricate dish, or build a model;
  • learn a new yoga pose.

Spiritualist-Existential Intelligence…

is the proclivity to pose and ponder questions about life, death, and ultimate realities. It was not part of Gardner’s original group, but researchers such as psychologist Robert Emmons, Ph.D., have shown that it fits Gardner’s criteria as a full-fledged intelligence. To develop it,

  • identify a theme in your life;
  • analyze your feelings about life after death;
  • think about what your fate or purpose might be;
  • learn about a different religion or spirituality;
  • think about your relationship with your pet and whether it understands you;
  • ponder your feelings about God;
  • picture what life on another planet might look like;
  • identify your feelings about heaven or reincarnation.

Logical- Mathematical Intelligence…

is the ability solve mathematical and logical problems through inductive and deductive reasoning. To develop it,

  • play games that require logic, such as cards or dominoes;
  • do logic puzzles or brain teasers;
  • go to a science museum;
  • make flow charts;
  • learn to program your computer and how its components work;
  • use a telescope or a microscope to get a new perspective on the world;
  • balance your checkbook by hand before reaching for the calculator.

Emily Brandon is a neurobiology researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., where she is studying the mechanism of visual recovery after a stroke. [2004]


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