After watching Todd Sampson’s documentary series, Redesign My Brain, last Thursday night on the ABC, I began to wonder if my brain can be redesigned too. Not completely, but since episode one was titled Make Me Smarter, I was definitely intrigued.
At one point on the show, he met with an expert juggler (and Neuroscientist on the side) from Melbourne, Dr Nick Price. Price was a firm believer that juggling can improve your focus, attention span and brain thinking speed. Naturally, then, we penned-in a trip to Bernard’s Magic Shop on Elizabeth Street after the market on Saturday morning.
After half an hour’s practice in the park, and a good measure of juggling juice (aka. homemade apple cider), my partner and I had managed to get at least 12 catches in a row of the three-ball cascade. Of course, we bought two sets of balls as we are sure to become an amazing juggling duo in the near future.
So I plan to keep juggling, and keep practicing (I’m up to 20 minutes today already, between sentences…), but will it really make me smarter?
The whole idea is based around the fact that our brains are ultimately alterable, this is, they exhibit neuroplasticity. It’s because of neuroplasticity that we are able to form new memories and new skills, via the brain’s amazing ability to form new synapses, strengthen existing neuronal connections, and even give birth to new neurons altogether. Studies have shown that physical exercise combined with intellectual stimulation can enhance neuronal formation and survival. Evidence suggests that brain exercises can even slow the onset of Huntington’s disease– a genetically inherited neurological disorder.
The central nervous system can be divided into two types of matter; grey and white. Within the brain, grey matter – responsible for muscle control and sensory function – extends mainly throughout the surface regions of the brain while white matter – which passes the messages through the nervous system – is mainly located in the deep regions of the brain. A study published in 2004 compared jugglers to non-jugglers over a period of 6 months and found that those who learned and became proficient in the skill of juggling significantly increased the amount of grey matter within their brains (in a motion-specific area of the brain) compared to non-jugglers. What’s more, is that the brain imaging process was repeated after the jugglers ceased practicing for 3 months, and the authors found that the grey matter had decreased again to their pre-juggling levels. The authors deduced that the brain was exhibiting the ability to change structurally; this was contrary to the long-held view that the brain was unable to do this after adolescence.
As I’ve written this blog piece, I’m well over an hour’s practice of juggling for today (it’s not procrastination, it’s research) but no doubt this will drop as the weeks pass and the juggling juice runs out. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s at least a cool party-trick to have up my sleeve, and a good excuse to get up from the desk for 10 minutes to improve my focus! Oh, and a tip, if you’re going to try juggling, don’t do it outside when it’s windy, with another person practicing right nearby; I got a ball to the eye which cut the practice session short, and required lots of juggling juice to remedy.