Commuting

We use mental maps to navigate through our daily lives.

By middle age, we've created hundreds of these maps and can readily recall the layout of rooms in houses where we've lived, street grids in towns, interstate highway networks, and the relationships of countries and continents to each other. Because losing one's sense of place is confusing, or even frightening, the brain devotes a lot of processing power to forming and interpreting these mental maps.

Early Polynesian sailors didn't have AAA TripTiks or global positioning systems. They navigated the Pacific by paying attention to multisensory cues—subtle changes in ocean waves, the smell of the sea, the types of seaweed drifting by, and the feel and direction of the wind. In short, these early explorers had available all the ingredients for Neurobic exercise: an important task, the use of all their senses, and novel associations! Today, the opportunities to exercise our brain by exploring uncharted seas are limited. Most days, our visuospatial abilities are called upon to do something much more ordinary—the daily commute.

Unfortunately, the commute is about as far from Neurobic exercise as you can get. It's predictable, routine, and brain-numbing. We've all had the experience of getting to work and having almost no recollection of how we got there. Most of the ride is spent encased in a cocoonlike environment, shielding us from the sights, sounds, and smells of the outside world, and often from other people as well.

But with a little planning and rethinking, your commuting time can be changed from a passive, mindless activity to one that strengthens the brain. Here are some ideas on how to transform your daily trip into a Neurobic workout.

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