Exercise Those Brain Muscles -- But Not Too Much

By Clara Lewis

This series of articles is based on my walks & talks with my friend Hui Lian. On these forays, she shares with me many fascinating aspects of ancient traditional Chinese culture.

For my first post Lian told me that our natural lifespan should be, according to some practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine, 140 years (see my first post for more details about this). One of the themes throughout this set of articles is how we might be able to stop losing years from this allotted time span. Mostly though, this light-hearted series is about learning a few things we might find interesting and having some fun in the process.

Today I am going to share with you a few of the things Lian has mentioned to me about the brain. Well, mostly. I say mostly because in Chinese Traditional Medicine everything is connected and it seems you can’t discuss one organ without discussing other parts of the body that are related to it, which are many… Anyway, here are a few bits of information I garnered from our last walk together.

Yesterday, we talked about strategies for keeping our brains productive, youthful and engaged for as long as possible.  When Lian mentioned that thinking too much is hard on the brain, I thought: “Oh no, early dementia here I come…” My spirits fell even further when she added that worrying was especially harmful.  My first thought after this was, “Think how much healthier my mind would be now if I had known this before…” Yeah, I definitely have the worry habit. There go another few years.

Actually ancient Chinese people thought that our minds should be as empty as much as possible. They considered thoughts to be material things so it was important to keep the brain light and clear.

So why is it that overthinking and worrying is so hard on the brain? One of the ways you can take care of the brain is by not over-burdening it. Actually ancient Chinese people thought that our minds should be as empty as much as possible. They considered thoughts to be material things so it was important to keep the brain light and clear.

To help me understand, Lian used this analogy: when you hang heavy bags on your shoulders for a while, your shoulders will become tired and sore. Thus, when the material substance of thoughts and worries are carried for too long, of course this will stress and weigh down your brain.

Lian told me that in ancient times people did things very quickly because their thoughts were simple and focused. They always tried to keep their promises and do what they said they would do. They followed one path when doing something and gave it their all in order to do it well. They didn’t worry about themselves or what other people thought. So it was easier for them to lead long, healthy lives. We see this phenomenon even today with the laid-back people of Okinawa, who are far more likely to live past the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world. (Of course, their simple, nutritious diets may also have something to do with it, but that's another topic.)

However, being laid-back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think at all. It’s a bit like physical exercise — you don’t want to over-exert yourself with a triple marathon every day, but some moderate daily exercise like taking a walk or just doing the housework is beneficial.

Lian says one thing that’s for sure is that the brain, at any age, wants to learn new things. That’s just the nature of it. It’s a learning machine, and it needs to run or it gets rusty. And so, maybe the best way to keep the brain happy and active is simply to feed it things to learn every day. But if you find you haven’t learned anything all day, no matter what you do, don’t worry about it!

So that’s enough brain stimulus for today. Check back for our next post where we’ll discuss how the fingertips are connected to the brain and why eating little brains (walnuts) can strengthen the mind.