by Taeh Ward, PhD
Just like our muscles, the human brain functions under the principle of “use it or lose it.” This means that rarely used connections between brain cells (neurons) become weaker and can be eliminated over time when you stop using certain skills or are no longer exposed to specific environments.
Exercising your brain strengthens and creates new neural connections and reorganization. Researchers initially thought that the human brain was static and stopped developing as we grew older, but newer studies show that the brain can change over a lifetime.
Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new connections in response to changes in behavior or environment. Developing new thoughts and skills can carve out new pathways in the brain.
Neuroplasticity allows individuals to recover from strokes or other brain injury by developing new connections in the brain to compensate for areas of damage. Research shows that engaging in new, unique and complex activities or environments and then practicing the skills necessary to participate promotes more neuroplastic changes in the brain. In research on mice, living in an enriched environment with greater learning and physical activity decreased age-related brain degeneration. Both mental and physical exercise help to maintain brain function over time.
Do-it-yourself projects are a great way to increase mental stimulation and neuroplasticity in the brain. DIY promotes and strengthens new neural connections through:
- Motivation: being alert and motivated to complete a project
- Creativity and complexity: coming up with a new project
- Planning: thinking through the steps and materials needed and prioritizing what comes first
- Organization: obtaining and organizing necessary materials
- New learning: learning new skills as needed to complete the project
- Practice: using old and new skills to complete the task
- Problem solving: thinking outside of the box, working around challenges, coming up with solutions for problems during the project
- Mental stimulation: DIY projects in general are mentally stimulating, which can be increased by listening to music while you work.
- Exercise: Most DIY projects require increased movement; even if you sit throughout the task, you are still moving your arms.
Compensatory strategies can be used to reduce frustration during DIY projects. Use a written plan, drawings and simple schematics to visualize how the project should look when finished, and to determine the needed materials.
Carry your plans with you when gathering your materials. Discuss your project with others to help you think through the necessary steps and materials, and to learn from others who may have more experience.
Prepare a shopping list of necessary products and materials, and for what the item is needed, such as plants for specific-sized pots.
Carry a small tape measure and calculator (or cell phone with calculator function) with you when shopping. Bring samples with you or obtain samples at the store in order to match colors, textures and materials.
Be mindful of safety during your project by reading warning labels on products, asking questions when purchasing materials, using safety devices, like gloves and protective glasses, and reading do-it-yourself magazines, manuals or online instructions and videos.
Break the project down into small steps and set realistic goals regarding how much you hope to complete each day. Reduce the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed by focusing on individual steps and daily goals instead of the project as a whole, and having fun no matter how well the project turns out.
Most importantly, remember that even planning or starting a DIY project results in mental stimulation. So, while finishing the task results in positive emotions, engaging in any part of a DIY project promotes brain health and neuroplasticity.
Dr. Ward, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com