You may be reading this and thinking, "I lead a fairly active life and my brain seems pretty stimulated. Sure, I have my routines, but it's not like I don't see new movies, listen to new songs on the radio, watch TV, or meet new people."
The truth, however, is that most of us go through our adult lives engaged in a series of remarkably fixed routines. Think about your average week., .or day-to-day life. Really, how dif ferent are your commutes, your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, week in and week out? And what about things like shopping and laundry? It's startling to realize just how predictable and free from surprises our everyday lives really are and, as a consequence, how little we tap into our brain's ability to make new associations.
Now, routines are not necessarily bad. People created routines because until recent times, the world was unpredictable, and finding food and shelter was filled with risk and danger. Once reliable sources of food, water, and shelter were discovered, it made sense to continue in the same patterns that allowed them to be obtained with a minimum of risk. Discovering and practicing successful routines in an unpredictable world ensured survival.
But in our late-twentieth-century, middle-class American lives, such unpredictability is largely gone. Food is readily available at the local supermarket; water flows from the tap; weather-resistant, heated and cooled houses shrug off the climate. Modern medicines ward off most common diseases. We even count on the fact that our favorite TV shows air each week at the same time.2
What consequences does this predictability have on the brain? Because routine behaviors are almost subconscious, they are carried out using a minimum of brain energy and provide little brain exercise. The power of the cortex to form new associations is vastly underutilized.
If you drive or walk to work via the same route every day, you use the same brain pathways. The neural links between brain areas required to perform that trip become strong. But other links to areas that were initially activated when the route was novel—such as a new smell, sight, or sound when you rounded a certain corner—get weaker as the trip becomes routine. So you become very efficient at getting from point A to point B, but at a cost to the brain. You lose out on opportunities for novelty and the kind of diverse, multisen-sory associations that give the brain a good workout.
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