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How travel can redesign your brain

As you move beyond your more productive years, do you find yourself worrying about those momentary memory lapses?

Perhaps you notice an occasional lack of clarity or find it difficult to come up with new and innovative ideas?

Age can certainly affect our cognitive skills but is there a deeper worry that we are slowly losing our minds to something more sinister like dementia?

Like me have you been conditioned to believe that your brain is on a slow downward spiral towards ineffective thinking or worse afflictions?

I certainly believed the science I was taught many years ago, that my brain will slowly deteriorate as I grow older.

That was until the moment I discovered Australian, Todd Sampson and his TV series about neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to redesign itself regardless of age!

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Todd Sampson explains how brain plasticity can be improved in the Australian TV program “Redesign Your Brain”

It was a revelation and a welcome one at that. I’m semi retired now through choice, although I prefer to describe myself as a “global nomad” – a long term traveller who chooses to work a little, and live a lot – and in that order!

A mental gymnasium for the mind

But, I do sometimes worry that my thought processes aren’t quite as sharp as when I worked in a corporate environment. However, I’ve now realised, that with a little effort I can improve my failing memory, think faster and become more creative. By using some simple brain training exercises, I can sign myself up to a mental gymnasium for the mind that will enhance my brain’s neuroplasticity irreversibly!

I’m not talking about an annual subscription to Lumosity – the popular brain training exercise program. What I learned from Todd, was that through day to day problem solving, real time challenges, visualisation, mental stimulation and other creative exercises, it’s possible to reawaken parts of the brain that have fallen into an ineffective slumber.

OK, in Todd’s case he was highly motivated by challenging activities and timelines. But he demonstrated outstanding determination with incredible results.

Mulling over the implications of this remarkable science, my eyes were opened to how my non-conformist, travelling lifestyle of the past two years, has in fact already had a positive effect on my brain’s design.

Since leaving my mediocre life in London and embarking on a long term house sitting and travel adventure, I’ve begun to stimulate my brain quite naturally.

Through the process of perpetual change and survival in new and different cultures, my brain has redesigned itself without me even noticing.

Travel plays a big part in stretching the brain beyond itself, but adapting to a new culture pushes it into another sphere altogether.

Here are some of the ways travel has redesigned my brain.

Adaptability

When travelling or living in a new culture, adaptability is probably the biggest challenge you’ll face. Becoming mobile and leaving behind the security of your home and community automatically exposes you to a world of unknown probabilities.

I moved to Shenzhen, a city on mainland China, and living and working here is so totally different to any western society. Language, values, thought processes, social interaction, food. Absolutely everything is alien and unknown.

Our thought processes get fixed by our environment, and if you can’t be flexible and embrace everything that’s new, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated and longing for home. Living here is like being a small child in a strange new life, learning once again how to commune and interact with other human beings. This in itself is refreshing and it puts me back in touch with my innocence and vulnerability.

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Set your brain alight with a series of brain training exercises

Awareness

A simple task like walking to the bus stop quickly triggers a heightened state of awareness. Streets and paths are uneven – I walk (sometimes in heels) without the assurance of smoothly paved roads. I’ve learned to negotiate building sites with towering cranes, swinging their loads precariously overhead. Health and safety has little credibility in China where people still take responsibility for their own well being.

Crossing the road definitely improves peripheral vision. I have to look in every direction at once, and continue to do so to avoid electric bikes, travelling fearlessly on the wrong side of the road.

There are 15 million people to avoid bumping into – most of whom are so glued to their mobile phones and wechat messaging that they don’t see you approaching. Miraculously they have developed an instinctive radar system to avoid collision. Perhaps that’s brain plasticity in action!

Shopping at markets and street sellers requires another level of super awareness. Skilled vendors have an amazing aptitude for slight of hand. How else could I buy two small pieces of fish, but pay for and receive an inedible and weighty fish head? Now I’ve learned to talk, work out payments and watch the weighing scales, all at the same time!

In the west I had stopped taking responsibility for my own safety – here it’s a necessity and it’s reignited my innate sense of fear, ensuring I survive in a world without legal reassurances should an accident occur. I’ve learned once again how to survive and it’s actually a good feeling!

Problem solving

Using public transport certainly draws on and improves your problem solving skills. When everything is in an illegible language that can’t easily be translated, you have to come up with a different approach to extracting information.

Working out bus routes was like a huge reality puzzle. We walked the streets, photographed bus stops and listed bus numbers. These were cross referenced to different points around the city. Gradually we uncovered the routes that would take us to work by the quickest most efficient journey.

But, there was so much more than this. We still have to work out ways to resolve simple problems like buying products online, booking tickets, using a washing machine, and all sorts of other day to day situations.

We are teaching here for a year to top up our funds. Working out ways to impart language to students with a totally different alphabet also stretches the brain to think more creatively. Someone told me that the Asian mind works in a spiral and the western mind is more linear. It takes some unique thinking to find the middle ground on which to share language and ideas. However, by persevering, I’ve had some of the most open and amazing conversations here in China.

Can travel really redesign your brain?
Can travel really redesign your brain?

Creativity

When you lose the ability to communicate verbally, it becomes necessary to find another way to express yourself. Of course, you’ll try to learn the language, or at least enough to get you by – but that’s no easy feat in China.

Learning Mandarin is tough. At best you might learn three or four words or phrases in a one hour lesson. That doesn’t guarantee either that you’ll be able to read, recognise or write the characters.

In what can sometimes feel akin to a “life and death” situation, creativity quickly kicks in. I’ve developed sign language, the ability to sketch, and ingenious ways of using technology to get me by day to day.

This creativity has developed do the degree that, in the absence of speech, I seem to have acquired the ability to “know” intuitively what’s being said to me. My brain now interprets facial expressions, body language, sounds and environmental indicators.

I can have a “conversation” on the bus in which I do nothing more than nod, smile and make verbal acknowledgments. All of these appear to be acceptable but even more astonishingly, acceptable as the “correct answers”.

For my part I also know instinctively what I’ve been asked or told. And, because my brain can make no sense whatsoever of what is being said, it seems content to communicate in this simple way. When I observed this phenomenon, it really struck home to me how unbelievably skilled the brain is at adapting itself for survival.

More vital, more awake and more fulfilled

Since starting out on my great life adventure, I have felt more vital, more awake and more fulfilled then ever before in my life. Any form of long term travel will expose you to some or all of the challenges I’ve mentioned.

These situations have a positive effect – they keep you on your toes, reawaken your mind and allow you to fully appreciate the amazing opportunities in your new environment.

Dealing with change and constant adaptation along with reshaping your thoughts and views on life, will no doubt help you stay smarter, brighter and more able to enjoy and fully experience all the wonders that our world has to offer. You’ll not only redesign your brain, you’ll also redesign your limits!

Have you noticed any ways that your brain has redesigned itself through travel experiences?

If you’d like to read more about Todd Sampson and the program “Redesign your brain”, click here:

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/redesign-my-brain-with-todd-sampson/

 

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