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Brain Plasticity, Croatia and Life Lessons Learned

SAM_5972

I was in Croatia last week and it is a beautiful place. The country is a compelling mix of the traditional and modern lifestyles and being there exposed me to numerous new experiences and things that that reminded me of some important life lessons and required that I operate outside of my comfort zone,  and try new things.

As I age, one of the things that I work to develop is my willingness to take on new experiences. The goal is to operate outside of my normal range of activities and push the limits of my comfort zone in some way each day. It is to stay flexible and expansive as I age and to avoid creating an increasingly smaller safe zone that limits my potential. I have written about this in a previous post called Taking Risks and Growing Wings.

Wikipedia defines brain plasticity as “changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.”  It is the agility and flexibility of our brains and the resultant ability to age with vitality.  Dr. Michael Merzenich of the University of California has explored the subject of brain plasticity for thirty years. He suggests that as we age, we stop learning and trying new tasks and avoid exposing our bodies and brains to new experiences.

“Generally, by the third or fourth decade in life, you’re in decline,” Dr. Merzenich says. ”One of the things that happens across this period is that you go from a period of the acquisition of abilities to largely using those abilities that have been acquired earlier in life. By that, I mean to say, the fundamental skills that you apply in your profession or in your everyday life are things you master, and you’re doing them without thought.

To a large extent, you’re operating most of your day without really being consciously engaged in the things you’re doing… I’ve gone without really thinking very much about the physical acts of driving. I’m substantially disengaged.

This has been contributed to substantially by modern culture. Modern culture is all about taking out surprises… to basically reduce the stimulation in a sense on one level, so that we could engage ourselves in sort of an abstract level of operations. We’re no longer interested in the details of things. We’re no longer interested in resolving the details of what we see or hear or feel, and our brains slowly deteriorate.”

By experiencing new things, we strengthen our brains and just as we did in our childhood development and learning, we expand the capability, adaptability and flexibility of our brain. In addition, we stir up some excitement and increase our good feelings of achievement and confidence.

When I arrived in Croatia, the only car available was a standard. I learned to drive standard when I was twenty on a friend’s vehicle and I have not driven a standard for 35 years. That was only the beginning. Add in twisting roads and unprotected cliff edges and dense traffic in the cities and suddenly every minute is an opportunity to try new things!

However, I survived. Better yet, I thrived. And it was one of the best experiences of my lifetime because of that. So here is a list of the things that I learned and relearned as I made my way through this beautiful country with my willing travel partner (who had never driven standard).

Life Lessons Learned

Lesson #1: Thinking about doing hard things is harder than actually doing those things. I had stressed and lost sleep over the idea of driving standard in a new place. It turns out my brain somehow remembered the logistics of keeping a standard car in motion and it turns out that thinking about getting behind the wheel was much worse than actually being there. This happens all the time around new experiences. The greater the angst, the greater the reward.

 

Lesson #2: When you take on a new challenge, and conquer your fear, there is nothing quite as sweet as the feeling of strength and capability that you gain by having succeeded. Your confidence soars and your openness to take on other challenges explodes.

 

Lesson #3: It is okay not to know. Not to know how to do things. Not to know where you are or where you are going. It is okay not to know the language and to figure things out anyway. Leaning in to not knowing feels good. There is a real sense of peace when you accept that you do not know and that is all right.

 

Lesson #4: You cannot always see the whole path ahead, so choose your direction and take small steps forward. As you do, the next step is illuminated. Rinse and repeat.

 

Lesson #5: It is okay to be wrong. It just means that you have to try another route or course of action. We spend our lives trying not to make mistakes but the process of learning is just a series of mistakes resulting in a closer estimation of the end goal.

 

Sometime safe and same is good to go home to. However, our brains need the stimulation of new experiences, new tastes, new sounds and new synapses to stay strong and functional into our later years. But it is not just about keeping our brains healthy but rather adding a grand feeling of just being alive. And that keep us interested and interesting.

All five of these life lessons have been presented to me in my lifetime. But never quite so succinctly as the experiences on the trip had provided. When I named the blog, I believed that something as simple as trying new things each day could change your life. And after this visit to Croatia, I have a new energy behind the message.

 

Love your life,

Kelly

10 Comments

  1. DJan says:

    Very well put, and I enjoyed the entire list of lessons learned. I remember when I was 47 years old and made my first skydive. The sense of wanting to continue in the face of everything telling me I shouldn’t was what drove me to become a skydiver. I got so much out of that first decade of learning on almost every single jump. And traveling to a new country without knowing the language came in a very close second! Good post, thank you. :-)

    • Kelly says:

      You were 47 when you made your first skydive! Good for you! I love how you describe that irrational sense of wanting to continue when everything was telling you not to. That is fear talking but we think it our rational self. So unless we are discerning we can mix those two and end up not doing the thing that we most need to do.

      And making your way in a country where you don’t know the language is another big one. Funny how a smile is international isn’t it?

      Thanks for your thoughts DJan.

  2. PCgal says:

    Kelly,
    From your list, #3 is something that I always try to apply in new situations. Accepting the fact that we don’t and can’t know everything is very liberating. It also releases the tension from a stressful situation and can turn what might look like a bad experience into a learning experience very quickly. Happy travels. Suzanne

    • Kelly says:

      Hey Suzanne…that #3 is such a huge revelation for me…just to relax into the fact that we don’t know is breakthrough. And like you say all the stress drains out of a situation when you realize that not knowing is okay. Another phrase I often use is “I will figure it out as I go” and that one sets me free as well.

      Thanks for your insight and your good wishes.

  3. I keep holding back from more traveling, more exploring…It’s somewhat complicated since I’m married. Part of me just wants to go on an indefinite roadtrip!

    • Kelly says:

      Love the idea of an indefinite roadtrip! I am on an 8 week roadtrip…it may feel indefinite by the time I am 6 weeks in. Right now I am two weeks in and I am still excited to be on the trip.

      I will visit 6 countries by the time I return and it just feels like an amazing adventure. It is my first time being away this long. Some of it is solo and some with friends and some with family…nice mix.

      Being married and travelling can still work!

      • I took two six week trips last year. One through six countries in Africa with strangers and the other solo through the Southern U.S. It didn’t seem too long to me at the time. Have fun!

        • Kelly says:

          Wow that is amazing and it does give me confidence. Thanks for you thoughts…might like to talk more about that!

  4. Hi Kelly! I have a photo of the EXACT same steps in Dubrovnik when we visited there in May. It was AWESOME–we stayed in a little apartment very close to where these steps were….the only thing better was visiting the REST OF CROATIA…such a gorgeous country and the people were awesome. Good food, good wine, excellent roads…a lovely place to visit. Enjoy the rest of your trip….I’m looking forward to seeing if you go to any of the other places we visited as well. ~Kathy

    • That building was soooo photogenic wasn’t it! We went to Split and Zadar also. I loved the Promenade in Split. Had a wonderful afternoon with some amazing people in Dubrovnik. And in Zadar, although I did not love the city, seeing/hearing the Sea Organ was worth the trip! It is a beautiful place. I couldn’t agree more. You sound like you loved it there also!

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