same old, same old

If you’ve ever driven non-stop on an interstate highway through one of our flatter states, you’ll know the question that settles over you after an hour or so: Will this ever end?

I felt the same way when a few years back we took the Grand Canyon Railway from the hotel in Williams, AZ, to the actual Grand Canyon. It was a two+ hour trip on a terribly slow train. How slow? You can drive from Williams to the Canyon in an hour. The scenery from the train was nothing but high desert views of dusty fields and scraggly trees. Mile after mile, the view did not change.

That constant sameness caused me to feel edgy, and I couldn’t understand why. Certainly, the trip was the opposite of sensory overload, but I didn’t find it calming or relaxing.

I watched a TED talk today called “Architecture and the Science of the Senses.” This fascinating lecture stressed the need for a stimulating environment to help us flourish. One study that speaker Stefan Behling noted involved subjects being placed in an all-white room with perfect constant light levels and air conditioning. After 24 hours, the subjects began hallucinating. After 48 hours, some “basically broke down and collapsed…showing that sensory deprivation is as bad for your brain as the lack of stimulation to your muscles.”

Behling believes it’s important that our senses be stimulated and that the stimulation should vary.

Think of it this way: Even if what we have is excellent, a constant “diet” of it becomes boring to our senses. For example:

  • Smell – As fall approaches, the popular pumpkin spice fragrance can be smelled in many stores. My olfactory nerve really likes this scent! The fragrance immediately evokes autumnal thoughts. But would I appreciate it if this were ALL I smelled, 24/7, 365?
  • Taste – I really enjoy lasagna. But after several dinners of that leftover pasta, I’m ready for something else.
  • Sound – We might have a favorite song that, whenever it plays on the car radio, we turn it up louder. But what if that were the only song in the world? How quickly might we not only tire of listening to it but also grow to hate it?

So stimulation of our senses is good for us! Doing something new can be as simple as varying our daily walk. Grace the beagle foxhound and I love walking in the local park where sights DO change simply because we’re outdoors. The light changes, there is varying weather, the sky might be a cloudless blue or a threatening grey. Something new might be in bloom, something else might have its color fading. There is one tree whose bark changes with the seasons. While there are some park regulars that we know, there are usually new children and parents, and perhaps a new dog to meet.

But we also walk in town a few times a week. There are different things to notice there such as varied displays in store windows and enticing smells from the bakeries and restaurants. Doors are sometimes left open to encourage us to go in. New places open and old places close. I read flyers that have been posted. We interact with the town people.

Learning something new every day is also excellent stimulation. TED and TEDx talks are free online, and there is an amazing array of topics to peruse. At a viewing time of under twenty minutes, a TED talk is easy to fit into even busy schedules.

Recent studies by neuroscientists show that a brain that learns something new each day is less likely to develop dementia. I’ve attached a link to an excellent TED talk called What You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s by Lisa Genova. She notes that having cognitive reserves is an excellent way to fight off dementia. And learning something new is how to gain those cognitive reserves.

The “something new” needs to be a bit of a stretch. In other words, simply learning the definition of an unfamiliar word is a bit easy. The “something new” needs to engage our senses and emotions.

So if you didn’t already know the information in this blog and it’s encouraged you or interested you, I’ve just helped you build some new neural connections. Go tell someone else this story. And then our work is finished for today.


Lisa Genova – Preventing Alzheimer’s