Could a rat be your ticket to a smarter, healthier, tougher brain in 2019? We don't usually think of rodents as particularly brainy, but according to professor Kelly Lambert, the bewhiskered critters hold the key to tuning up your brain for maximum functioning.
A neuroscientist with three decades of experience based at the University of Richmond, Lambert conducts work on the brain functioning of rats. In a recent The Conversation post she insists that these little animals reveal important insights about how our own brains work -- and simple ways we can make them work better.
"Rat brains are small but have the same general areas and neurochemicals we have, so these rodents are valuable laboratory models for human behavior," she explains before offering easy but powerful changes all of us can make to ensure our most important organ functions at its peak this year.
1. Spend more time in the real world.
We all know that sitting around is bad for your body, but few of us realize how bad it is for your brain. Neuroscience shows that getting up from your screens and interacting with the real world is essential for keeping the three-pound lump in your head in shape.
"The rats that my students and I train in our studies to physically work for coveted treats (Froot Loops cereal is a favorite) develop healthier emotional responses than the animals we call 'trust-fund rats' because they're merely given their sweet rewards. The harder-working rats have healthier stress hormone levels and engage in more sophisticated search strategies when they encounter a surprise challenge," she writes. In short, work improves rats' mental toughness.
Does that mean you should run marathons or spend hours at the gym? Not at all. All you need is do more actual, real-world things. "Real-world experiences represent the best currency for our brain circuits," insists Lambert. "Spending time engaged in hobbies such as knitting or gardening, for example, with complex movements and rich sensory experiences, provides a valuable yield for our brains."
2. Anticipation is the best drug of all.
When you wire up a rat's cage with a mechanism that dispenses drugs on demand, you learn that rodents fiend for a high just as much humans. But you also discover that high begins not when the drug hits their system, but when they approach the drug dispenser. Anticipation, it seems, is one of the world's strongest (and healthiest) highs.
Use that truth to improve your brain and your life in 2019, Lambert suggests. "Anticipating a new start and a new year may be a scaled-down version of approaching the experimental lever for a hit of cocaine - a legal and healthy dopamine dose in this case. You can try to keep this emotional high going through the year by amping up the anticipation in your daily life," she advises.
"Focus more on delayed than immediate gratification. Buying and planning for experiences is more satisfying than material purchases. Mapping out a menu, shopping for ingredients and cooking a meal provides more dopamine time - and brain-engaging behaviors - than nuking a frozen meal and eating it three minutes later," she elaborates.
3. Boredom stresses you out.
Our intuition about stress is all wrong, according to Lambert. Ask most people how to avoid stress and they'll suggest something like curling up on the sofa for a Netflix marathon. But Lambert's research shows that the opposite is actually true -- to kill stress you want to stimulate your brain, not cocoon it in the familiar.
"When I furnish my rats' housing with natural elements such as dirt, hollowed-out logs and rocks, they're busier and less likely to sit around the edge of the cage than animals in boring empty cages. After building their experiential capital, these enriched rats have healthier stress and resilience hormone profiles and engage in bolder behaviors, such as diving to the bottom of swim tanks instead of staying on the top doing their best impression of a dog paddle," she notes.
Who among us wouldn't like to dive into bolder challenges with less stress in 2019? The trick to doing that isn't protecting your brain from the new and moderately stressful, but instead getting out in the big, wide, challenging world to offer it regular doses of stress to build up your resilience. Less Netflix, in other words, and more stimulation.
So here's to a 2019 where you leave your screens and your sofa behind more and try more real-world activities -- even if you worry they might tire or stress you out. Force yourself out the door more often and your brain will thank you.