Think you’re losing your edge as you age? Think again. Jennifer Goddard tells JACQUI WALKER how we can all defrag our necktop computer.
By Jacqui Walker
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Jennifer Goddard is the director of the Buzan Centre in Australia and New Zealand and the co-founder of Mind Works International. Jennifer has a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation and an expert on thinking and the brain. Jennifer shares with Jacqui Walker tips on how to age proof your brain.
Jacqui Walker: With an ageing workforce in Australia and many developed countries, we need more life-long learners. What happens with the brain of most people as we age?
Jennifer Goddard: Well the good news is our brains actually get better as we get older. We used to think that our memory got worse as we got older, or that our brains start to deteriorate. But with the right training and the right skills, you can actually improve your brain as it gets older.
Do most people’s brains get better as they get older? Many people complain “oh I don’t remember”, “I forget people’s names” or “I’m not quite as quick as I was”. What’s happening for most people?
Some of us aren’t as quick as we were when we were younger, because we’ve got so many more memories. When they compare IQ tests between young people and old people, old people generally out-do the younger if they haven’t got a time limit – because they’ve just got so many options, so many more permutations to think through.
Now we’ve just got so many more memories (I’m 40 plus GST) than when we were 10 or 15.
We weren’t taught how to remember names and faces, and the number of people that we meet nowadays is just phenomenal compared to when we were much younger. It’s a skill that you can easily learn.
We all feel like we’re getting a little bit overloaded with our brain, and we might like to find the “defrag” button at the back of the brain to get rid of some of that rubbish – but what we now know is we can upgrade our “necktop” computer.
We can easily get more confidence back in our brain and know that it can get better as we get older. Alzheimers Australia has a new program now to help avoid Alzheimers. It’s called Mind your Mind, and the number one thing is “use it or you’ll lose it”. Keep your brain active and build on it.
So how do you do that specifically?
Well there are some simple techniques that you can do to keep your brain active. Playing mind games like crossword puzzles or sudoku or any sort of lateral thinking puzzles.
Anything that keeps your brain active, even if we’re quite busy in corporates or as entrepreneurs, just keeping our brain active. Challenging it actually keeps that mental fitness. It’s like going to the gym, but we want a mental gym for our brain.
And if you’re doing the same type of work every day? You might be very good at that, but you’re probably having some kind of cognitive decline elsewhere in your brain.
You need to do things as broadly as you can, so your brain doesn’t get lazy or inactive. Just like our physical bodies. So with our brain we want to try something new, learn a new skill.
Last year I decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar, and I’ve been practising a few minutes every day; and you know, I’m getting there. And if you’ve always wanted to learn a language or always wanted to learn to do something, it is really good for your brain for you to actually go off and do that.
I know we’ve all got busy lives and sometimes you just don’t know how to fit things in. But to do something for yourself and to learn something helps your brain. Keeps it active and fit, and also is really satisfying – “hey, I can do this”.
You talk about stages of a perceptively sharper mind. What are those stages?
One is to improve your memory. Memory is the basis for everything. It’s the basis for relationships, it’s the basis for thinking; for client work. If you can remember a project or a promise that you’ve made to a client. Memory is the basis for everything, like remembering names and faces.
So the first step is to improve your memory and that’s a simple skill. There are some tools and techniques that you can do. I run the Australian Memory Championships and the World Memory Championships, but my memory is definitely still improving, which is why I organise those events, not participate in them.
How do you do it?
It’s just understanding, like remembering a name and a face. You make some sort of a connection or an association with them. Make a link. Our brain works through imagination and association, because if you think of “apple” in your mind, some people might see a red apple or a green apple or Apple iPod or Gwyneth Paltrow’s baby Apple. Generally they won’t see a-p-p-l-e, because our brain sees an image. We use our imagination, and then you link that to an association.
Now 10% of people have really easy links – like a tall thin guy named Rod. Or a guy with a scar on his face, and his name’s Nick. You make these easy connections. Another 10% of the people will have unusual names. I met a lady recently and her name was Yeti and she was small, blonde and petite. Complete opposite of the other yeti. Or the local mayor, her name is Topsy, or a man named Beverley; so those names are a little bit more unusual.
The other 80% is a little bit of hard work. If you meet someone Jackie you might think of a famous Jackie, or you might have a sister named Jackie, or something like that. So you just make that connection – and it’s a little velcro hook that you stick on to until you really get to know that person.
So you know, it’s fairly simple to do that and it just takes a little bit of practice over time, and it also helps to improve your self confidence. Particularly if you can show this to your colleagues and to your kids, it makes such a big difference. Because if you feel like you’ve got a poor memory it really undermines your self confidence and that of your team.
So priming your brain with memory skills and techniques, doing word power or logic boosters, a bit of creative thinking type elements; they’re really important. Just to keep your brain active. So do a little bit every day.
How do you activate your imagination? I think a lot of people think they had a great imagination when they were a child but it was beaten out of them by their education.
Absolutely – I’ve got it on my report card. “She daydreams too much.” Well you know, we now know that daydreaming is a skill, and if you don’t daydream you die. It’s like getting enough REM sleep. Really deep REM sleep. The brain is timed to switch off. To think. To meditate. To pray. To chill out. Whatever you want to call it, and that’s one of the other stages.
This is to actually build a mental cushion, because most of us get our great ideas when we’re going for a run or in the gym or in the car or a walk, or just about to go to sleep or something like that.
And that’s because we’re not thinking of anything and we’re not interacting. We’re just letting our brain settle, and so try to imagine, try to daydream. De Bono talks about this concept called moment-to-moment. What you do is you create a little video in your mind, and say you’ve got a big meeting or a big presentation tomorrow and you might think OK, play this little video in my mind: “I’m going to arrive there then this is going to happen and that’s going to happen, then I’ll do this” and you go “oh, yeah, I better remember to take that as well”. So that helps you use your imagination, plan ahead and be much more organised and creative. Turn the radio off in the car or take time out to go for a walk and just “let your brain settle petal”.
It’s probably a good idea to start to think about that at this time of the year because people do have an opportunity to spend some time at the beach or relax a little, so maybe that’s what they should be thinking about when they’re down on the beach – instead of getting bored they should be exercising their brains in that way.
Well that’s right. And that’s how lateral thinking works. You might be thinking of something and you might see something and you go “OK, what’s a connection or an association with that item?”. For example you might have a problem with your team and you might be driving along and you see a garbage truck – “what sort of garbage does my team have to deal with at the moment? What sort of garbage can I get rid of from them.”
So you make that sort of connection or an association with that. So it’s easy to do. I suppose it’s easy to do and easy to say, but it takes a bit of skill.
I left school at 15. I was a high school drop out and dyslexic, and I came across this stuff about 11 years ago while I was studying part time for a degree and I got 52% the semester before – and then someone told me “why don’t you try mind maps?”
I tried them, and the next semester I got a distinction and a high distinction. I ended up getting a degree with distinction. I’ve now got my masters in innovation. Nothing changed with my intelligence. I just learnt to use my brain, and that’s all it is. And I loved it so much I quit my day job, and do things like run the memory championships or teach people to improve their memory and to be more memorable because there’s two sides to memory.
How do you teach people to be more memorable, or what does that mean?
Well you know how we forget names and faces. Well I’m sure people might forget your name or your face or your organisation or your project, so if you flip it and look at it from the other side, what can you actually do to help people remember you? Remember your name, remember your organisation or the things that you’re doing?
And you don’t want that to be something that’s embarrassing presumably.
Absolutely – and the brain is actually designed to forget stuff. We’ve got two million or something pieces of information battering our brains in a day. I think the figures are something like that. So our brain is actually designed to forget.
It only really keeps the most important stuff in our heads. So when you’re out meeting with people, networking, even just the way you hand over your business card, if you do it two handed like the Japanese or the Asians do it, that really stands out and people take much more notice of it.
And if you’ve got an unusual name – a friend of mine Vanda says it’s like Panda with a V. It just makes it easier for people to remember so you can actually help you and your organisation be more memorable – and that of course links in to marketing and networking elements, but you’ve got to understand the basics of the memory principles to really leverage off that.
To get back to the idea of age proofing your brain, what age do you need to start working on your brain?
You can start right now. Any time. You definitely don’t wait till you’re 60 or even 40. It’s starting now.
Do you get a cumulative benefit?
Absolutely. It makes a big difference right now. Just better, faster thinking, being more creative – and this is where mind maps help and link into it. You feel much more confident and your brain is active and it’s exercised, and you don’t feel quite so tired, lethargic in your brain. And it just takes a little moment to get interested in something.
Try different puzzles or try learning a new skill. A musical instrument is great. Or a language. And it’s also if you’ve got kids – it’s really good for your kids to see you struggling to learn something new because then you’re a good role model. And rather than tell the kids to go off and do their piano practice, they actually see you practising something or learning something.
At Christmas time I took up a whole lot of lateral thinking puzzles to all my nephews and we had a ball that day playing with all these different things rather than watching TV or hearing the normal family Christmas arguments.
There’s a conference coming up shortly. Can you tell us briefly about that?
We managed to get Tony Buzan to come out to Australia in February to run a number of workshops on how to age proof your brain.
I’ll be co-presenting with Tony and looking at it from an Australian context, but with this ageing workforce and the labour shortage, age proofing your brain is really important. Both to the individual and the organisation. So Tony’s going to be in Sydney on 15 February and in Melbourne on 21 February, so we’ve got a website dedicated to it.