Long-term cognitive health in the every day

Four days in and I was starting to struggle.  I don’t usually take photos every day.  This was a change in thinking.

I had decided to try posting photos from my phone, no text, just a photo.  Perhaps every day?

The idea dawned very slowly.  Stuck in a mob of sheep, I suddenly thought of sending a photo from my newish smart phone.  There were a couple more landscapes phoned off to family over the following few months and I started to wonder about possibilities.

Sheep on the Eugowra Road

But these regular snaps would sit uncomfortably with the format of this blog.  So I started another.  I started Cherrie Zell Everyday.  (I feel an empire coming on!)

On day four I was driving home after work with nothing yet in the bag and the sun setting behind deep cloud.   I saw my hope in a shaft of light in the distance, golden rays pouring down upon Mt Majura.  Closer, I glimpsed in my periphery the light playing in the strips of bark dangling from the road-side eucalypts.

Roadside Eucalypts

Up to this point, I’d noticed how looking for an image was crowding out other thinking – including thinking about driving.  It was a distraction.  The encounter with the eucalypts prompted some deliberate consideration about my aims for the Everyday site.  What was the point of it?  Everyday cannot be a shift of focus away from necessary routine.

Why “Everyday”?

Turns out, this has become a game where awareness of one’s surroundings is maintained WHILE focused on the task at hand.  Or to put it another way, the necessary routine takes centre stage but the events in the wings, on the periphery, aren’t ignored.

As a result, the images I post to Everday are glimpses of life that snatch at me, perhaps at us, when we aren’t “looking”.

Our long-term cognitive health needs these types of games.

A group of US-based researchers from the Northwestern University studying the ageing brain found that the anterior cingulate cortext of SuperAgers is thicker and larger than expected.  SuperAgers are old people with the cognitive abilities of people decades younger. The anterior cingulate cortext doesn’t look after memory directly, but it does work on things like controlled focus, attention, motivation and perseverance that are all related to our ability to remember stuff.  You can’t remember if you aren’t “in the zone”, as others say.  The ability to maintain focus on one thing is important.

It doesn’t look good for we of the easily-distracted and scattered-focus brigade.

But we are also encouraged to build neurons through stimulation.  This doesn’t sound like focusing for an extended period on the same thing.  I found a nice summary by Dr Fiona Kerr, Ockam’s Razor, broadcast on Radio National:

“At the other end of our lives, stimulation is also critical. In old age, when there is typically shrinkage in areas that govern adult learning, memory and emotion (hippocampus) and the frontal lobes related to reasoning and logical consequence, activities that stimulate these areas will help to not only minimise this occurrence but can halt and even reverse it (through neurogenesis).

“It requires learning new things (novelty), physical movement (dynamic resonance and dopamine/oxytocin) and social interaction which stimulates empathy – a powerful emotion that has a complex neural effect.”

Dr Kerr suggests dancing as a social activity that supplies all three – learning new things, physical movement and social interaction.  Unfortunately, when wandering the streets by myself, dancing as a social activity is not really an option.  So I’m wondering if this is where Everyday might prove beneficial?

The aim is for the centre of my focus to stay centre stage by ensuring that peripheral scanning is exactly that – off to the side – but still happening.  Controlled.  Stimulation can still sneak up with a creative surprise.

The aim is to find a balance between, on the one hand, strengthening the ability to stay focused and, on the other hand, letting the wonders of life stimulate and excite.

I guess time will tell.

Cold Weather Escape in a Jigsaw


North Western University. “SuperAger brains yield new clues to their remarkable memories: Brains of cognitively elite look distinctly different than their elderly peers”, published 3 February 2015.  http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2015/02/superager-brains-yield-new-clues-to-their-remarkable-memories.html

Kerr, Fiona.  “Neurogenesis: a force for creativity?”  broadcast on Ockam’s Razor, Radio National on 29 March 2015.  http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/neurogenesis3a-a-force-for-creativity3f/6325830#transcript

Check out Cherrie Zell Everyday



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