Fiona is learning Japanese. To do this, she uses an app for about 20 minutes each day. “It is difficult… but satisfying”, she says. “I have been practicing Japanese for the last 5 days and at first you learn by repetition. It is interesting and fun, and it helps me break the routine“.
Learning something new can be very beneficial, both for your emotional state and for your physical and mental state. “When you are stressed, it is possible that embarking on a new activity is the last thing you want to do. But several studies suggest that it can help reduce your stress levels”.
“In fact, in a study in which several participants were asked to learn something new and others to do something relaxing, it was the first group who experienced a greater reduction in their stress levels”, explains the study.
The state of “brain flow”
According to experts, doing a task that forces you to focus on the present moment can have similar benefits to practicing mindfulness. “Our nervous system is only capable of processing a limited amount of information at a time. When you are completely absorbed in something, you put the outside world on hold. This is called flow”.
The state of cerebral flow – the sensation of flow – was first identified by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in 1988. It is a phase between action and consciousness in which our performance increases and creativity appears. The state of “flow” or “brain flow” is the root of creativity.
“The effects of brain flow are similar to meditation: it calms the fight or flight reaction (a physiological response to the perception of harm or threat) that keeps our bodies in a constant state of stress”, says Mosley.
“And, as if this were not enough, when you practice a hobby that you enjoy, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine, our natural antidepressant“, adds the doctor. “But it is not just about taking care of your mental health. Learning something new can change how you think and how you feel. And it is an excellent exercise for your brain because it forges new neural patterns that help develop new brain connections, increasing your brain capacity”.
The advantages of learning a new language
Learning any new activity, be it painting, cooking, or surfing, can improve the functioning of your brain. And of all the new activities that you can develop, one stands out: learning a new language. “Learning a language activates an extensive neural network,” as explained.
“Navigating between different sounds, words, concepts, social and grammatical norms makes our organism increases blood flow and connections throughout the brain. In this regard, studies show that it actually changes your brain, increasing the number of nerve cells and the connections between them”. The doctor says it can even increase your intelligence, but only if you at least practice learning that new language for at least 5 hours a week.
Physical, mental and social aspects
Alan Gow is Professor of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He studies the impact that learning new skills can have on our brain. “What we have been doing in recent years is asking several people to develop a new activity – such as learning a language, signing up for a computer course or doing something more creative or artistic – after having passed a series of psychological and cognitive tests”, says the professor.
“The new activity must be something they have never done before, and they will develop it for three months before repeating the tests.” And the conclusion of his analysis, says Gow, is that “our brain becomes more active when we try a new challenge”. By facing new challenges you are helping your brain. “What we explore here is the idea of how the combination of the social, the physical and the mental can be beneficial to our ability to think”.
“It is never too late”
Gow says that learning new skills can help regenerate brain cells at any age. “It is never too late,” explains the psychologist. “And the longer you do it, the greater the benefits”. “In fact, there are studies that say that brain abilities most affected by age – such as speed of thought – are probably the ones that benefit the most” from learning a new skill. As for memory, Gow notes that “there are many different aspects”.
“As we age, we find it more difficult to retain new memories (short-term memory) and also transfer them to long-term memory. Most people also experience a decline in thinking skills with age”, adds the specialist. “It is never too late to learn something new”, says psychologist Alan Gow.
All of these mental abilities can improve when we learn a new skill over a sustained period of time. “Now we live longer, and we have a fantastic opportunity to use that time with positive, motivating, stimulating and interesting activities -to learn things that we have never done before”. “Not only for the sheer pleasure of making them, but also for the possibility that they bring us benefits during those years, and live longer and healthier lives”.