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Relationships

Valentine Brain Fitness

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By GDJ from Pixabay

Copyright (c) 2008 BrainFit For Life

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted new studies directed at figuring out how long-time married couples can keep their romance alive. The answer was very simple. Do something different.

In one ten-week study, researchers worked with 53 couples. They instructed one third of them to spend 90 minutes per week doing familiar but enjoyable activities, like going to dinner or a movie. Researchers instructed another third to spend 90 minutes doing something exciting that they both enjoyed. This group spent time doing new things or things they didn’t do very often. The final group received no specific instructions.

After the study was over, researchers interviewed the couples to rate the quality of their relationships. The couples that spent time doing new things scored higher than the other two groups.

This may all be common sense. The more exciting stuff you do together, the stronger your relationship can get. But it’s interesting to look at the underlying brain science, because it has implications for your overall brain fitness as well.

The brain enjoys new things. New experiences crank up the brain’s reward system, driven largely by the ‘pleasure’ signal, dopamine. This same circuit is very active early in the intensely romantic part of a relationship. So, the theory goes that doing new, exciting stuff together, may literally help rekindle the brain circuits that drive romance.

We have been promoting interjecting variety into your daily routines, as good for your brain fitness, for some time now. Beyond variety improving your relationships, it also helps you make new brain connections that are good for all kinds of brain functions.

Your brain is a web of about 100 trillion connections between 100 billion neurons. When we do new things and learn new stuff, the level of connectivity increases, and not just in your pleasure circuits but in other parts of your brain as well.

Increasing the connectivity between neurons in parts of the brain responsible for memory, decision making and creative thinking, is very beneficial to your long-term brain fitness. The more connectivity you create, the more defenses you have against cognitive decline as you age.

Think of an old tree with many branches. This is sort of what neurons look like. The more you learn by experiencing new things, the bushier the neuron gets and the more connections it can make. In fact, neuroscientists use the term ‘arborization’, meaning a tree-like appearance, to define the amount of branches a neuron has.

The degree of arborization is an indicator of a neurons health, especially in brain regions associated with learning and memory. Although we can’t directly measure arborization in people, studies in rodents show that those exposed to new environments on a regular basis have more arborization in neurons involved in memory.

What we can do in people is use new brain scanning technology to determine the level of activity in brain regions, which has some correlation with the level of connectivity and neuronal arborization in animal studies.

These brain-scanning technologies show that people in long-term, high quality relationships have greater brain activity in their pleasure centers when shown a picture of their spouse. Researchers believe that interjecting new experiences into marriage is one thing that helps maintain these connections.

So this Valentine’s Day, instead of visiting your favorite restaurantPsychology Articles, try a new one. Or get out and do something you both enjoy but don’t get the opportunity to do very often. It will be good for parts of your brain that will help keep your mind and your relationship young.

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