Everyone today is telling us that we need to regularly “exercise” our brain. But what does mental exercise mean for creativity? When we regularly workout “mentally” what is really changing in our brain?
By mental exercise, we mean engaging in challenging activities that require us to pay close attention and learn new things and make novel, often subtle, distinctions between similar-appearing things. The distinctions could be sensory-perceptual, or about meaning, or about action. Our brains are continually learning and forming predictions based on the environments we choose and make for ourselves. Environments matter.
Our brain—in response to our environments—changes continually, in multiple ways, and across multiple timescales. Both the structure of the brain (that is, how it is built) and the function (that is, the ways it processes information) may change in the face of experience. At the structural level, stimulating mental exercise may lead to the formation of new synaptic connections between neurons (that is, changing “gray matter”). It may also lead to more efficient connections between neurons and neuronal ensembles at long distances through changing what is known as “white matter” or axons. Greater white and gray matter connectivity may enable us to process and understand information more quickly and efficiently.
In the longer-term, our increased active grappling with novelty might lead to the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in regions of the brain such as the hippocampus, important in memory and in making connections between our experiences. Challenging mental exercise may make it more likely that new neurons that are born throughout our lifespan actually survive and become meaningfully connected to our existing memory and experience networks. New, effortful, and successful learning is the ticket to the survival and integration of many newly generated neurons. This could allow us to develop an increasingly deeper and richer wellspring of knowledge to draw upon in our discoveries and problem solving.
We should also consider the conjoined benefits of mental with physical exercise. Putting the two together may yield benefits that are more than the sum of their parts.
So what works best? Particularly potent are activities that involve naturally occurring combinations of mental and physical actions and that call on fine-grained multimodal coordination in time and space, such as various forms of dance, theater, filmmaking, musical performance, or real-world making and shaping. Dislodging old unproductive habits, deliberately varying, and paying attention in the moment all help our brains to dynamically develop brand new neural connections. We should choose and nurture activities that offer us long-term challenges with ever-unfolding possibilities.
As we observe in Part 1 of our book, Innovating Minds:
“We cannot understand creativity, or identify potential barriers to the generation of novel and innovative ideas and methods, if we isolate our mind or brain from our environments. Our minds, brains, and environments are in perpetual interplay. It is at their intersections that new ideas emerge and can be realized.”
–>For some empirical research on our dynamic brains and environments see:
How stimulating environments “makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive.”