On our wedding day, many years ago, my husband started to say the vows he had written. “I will study…” he began, and then he paused. I was confused – had he started to give the wrong speech? What did studying have to do with loving me or being committed to our marriage?
After a second or two, my husband went on to say something about studying our past to learn how to keep our relationship strong in the future. But as I think about it now, maybe a commitment to studying has its place in the vows along with “in sickness and in health”.
A new report from the U.K. shows how our brains can continue to develop new neurons, preserve the existing ones, and possibly improve the connection between neurons, if we challenge ourselves mentally. The researchers looked at people training to become London taxi drivers. Over a 3-4 year period, the drivers are required to learn the names and locations of about 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London. By the end of the training, brain images of successful driver trainees showed an increase in gray matter in the part of the hippocampus related to spatial navigation and memory. In other words, they grew new brain cells.
The study’s authors concluded that our brains remain “plastic” – capable of adapting – even as adults. But learning new tasks and skills is what prompts the response. Their work offers hope to people recovering from brain injuries, and refutes the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. If we needed more encouragement to be lifelong learners, this is certainly it.
“Lifelong learning” has been associated with continuing professional education to stay abreast of the latest developments in your field of work. It has also fostered programs such as Elderhostel and other classes for seniors. But in the current economy, with so much job insecurity, continuous learning has become critical for people wishing to remain competitive by learning new skills that will enhance their ability to get and retain a job.
Becoming a lifelong learner is also a way to spark personal growth, and to find meaning in your life. Taking classes, or getting involved in new experiences that have nothing to do with a job, can prompt a renewed sense of curiosity about the world. For people who might be facing job insecurity, studying something unrelated is both a distraction and a way to succeed in another arena.
What are some other benefits of learning new things? Greater knowledge and experience can help people deal with stress better because they can use it to dispute some of their irrational beliefs about stressful events. Mastering new skills also gives self-confidence a boost, which can increase resiliency. Since chronic stress can actually cause cellular aging, reducing stress and boosting the development of new brain cells might slow some of the decline we see with age.
So what does all this have to do with the marriage vows? By staying mentally sharp and healthy, the “sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” could possibly be minimized. By learning new things, being open to growth and change, someone is more likely to be open to a partner’s perspective. And let’s face it: often when people say they are bored with their husband or wife, they are really bored with themselves. So taking a class, learning a sport or finding your way around a new city makes you a more interesting person, and possibly keeps your relationship interesting too.
When my husband said he would study, he referred to us and our relationship. But I see now that studying the world, staying curious, and engaging in self-discovery is what makes each of us, and all of our relationships, stronger and healthier.