Leisure for the Body. Labor for the Brain.

What do you do when you take a break from work?  In your leisure time, what is something that you routinely find yourself doing?  What is your default solution to the eternal problem of boredom?

What if I told you that your choice of leisure time activity is linked to how you may handle memory loss when you get older?

In the last post, Ryan discussed structural changes in the brains of mice that were housed in an enriched environment (i.e. where they could interact with other mice and had several novel objects to play with).  As humans, our life choices, activities, and experiences form an integral part of our enriched environment and affect our brain’s structure and function.  Our leisurely engagements – reading books, hiking, painting, or online social networking – activate different parts of our brain.  Upon repeated indulgence in our favorite activity, these neuronal networks become stronger and over time, they are robust enough to influence the brain’s function.

Some companies, like Google, Zynga, and Facebook, have taken initiatives in providing their employees with impressive enriched environments at work.

Let’s explore the different ways in which our leisure activities may influence our brain’s functionality as we age:

  1. Passive effect:  Intellectually and socially engaging activities increase the number of synapses (sites of neuronal communication).  As we age, ‘stronger’ neurons compensate for ‘weaker’ neurons that may bear the brunt of aging-related stress.  In other words, strong neurons show more efficient cognitive functions, counterbalancing the loss of function in affected brain areas.  Example: An elderly individual may forget his home address, but remembers the directions to his house, thus compensating for his memory loss.
  2. Active effect I:  Even though the number of synapses remains the same, it is possible that the activities we choose could strengthen the synaptic connections we already have.  In other words, people who do certain leisure activities may have more efficient circuits of neuronal connectivity for that activity.  Example: Skills like playing the piano are retained even when old.
  3. Active effect II:  The ease with which our brain can use alternative brain networks improves and makes us better at perceiving an idea in a multi-dimensional way.  Example: Using several different theories to solve a challenging math problem.

The more time we spend in an enriched environment that enhances our physical activity, learning, and social skills, the more we train our brain to become resilient to age-related deterioration.  The activities we tend to do during our free time makes an important contribution towards our brain’s agility in recruiting several networks.  This resourceful functioning of our brain, in turn, makes us more accomplished at carrying out an assigned task.

So, the next time you’re contemplating how best to ‘kill’ time on a lazy Saturday afternoon, remember how your choice might influence your future aging brain!

Scarmeas N. & Stern Y. (2003). Cognitive Reserve and Lifestyle, Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology (Neuropsychology, Development and Cognition: Section A), 25 (5) 625-633. DOI: 
Images adapted from Randy Faris/Corbis, Google/Office SnapshotsJason Madera/Office Snapshots, and Cesar Rubio/Office Snapshots


Anita met neuroscience during her undergraduate project, and it was love at first sight. While majoring in biotechnology at the B.M.S. College of Engineering, Bangalore, she had the opportunity to learn about biochemical subtyping as a method for biomarker discovery in neurodevelopmental disorders. She then pursued a Master’s in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USC. During her thesis project, her interest in translational neuroscience further evolved as she studied a kinase pathway (PI3K) highly implicated in autism. She currently belongs to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC and works on components of the blood-brain barrier and its integrity in animal models of neurological disorders. Outside the lab, Anita is very enthusiastic about educational and scientific storytelling! Some of her parallel interests include consumer psychology and behavior.

4 thoughts on “Leisure for the Body. Labor for the Brain.

  • December 9, 2012 at 9:22 am

    So what activities do you recommend? Anything but TV? Or are there some things that are better than others?

  • December 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Vinny,
    Any activity that we choose and continue to enjoy over time has an effect on our brain. The paper cited here recommends intellectually and socially engaging activities (where multiple parts of the brain are involved at the same time) thereby strengthening multiple networks!

Comments are closed.