The Fountain of Youth: Keep Your Brain Young

diversindevilsden_500wI’ve always been adventurous and have often been quoted as saying, “I’ll try pretty much anything at least once.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that this statement is still true and it’s a big part of why I truly enJOY my life, my work, and all the people in “my world.”

It is true, to the best of our knowledge at this time, that fundamental differences exist in the adolescent brain (11-24 years old by neuroscience & psychiatric definition) that make us all distinctly different in these years than in childhood or in adulthood.  However, as adults, we are fully capable of embracing our ability to consciously change our brains by first examining our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and then changing the ones that don’t seem to be GROWING us and actually helping us THRIVE in our lives.  When we start making changes, our brains change too!  What’s awesome is that those brain changes affect how we think, remember, focus attention, make decisions, and relate to others (and ourselves).

We can learn a few things about how to GROW and THRIVE in our lives by setting ourselves up to experience more of the positive sides of four specific qualities embodied in the teenage and young adult mind, according to doctor and researcher Dr. Dan Siegel.  In the book Brainstorm, Siegel defines those qualities as:  Novelty Seeking, Social Engagement, Increased Emotional Intensity, and Creative Exploration.  There’s no time like the present to take on at least one of those categories consciously and make some changes in your life to support it!

“Novelty seeking” is a perfect starting point in flexing my adult-brain muscles because adventure and the deep sense of excitement and exhilaration I feel when I try new fun stuff is fantastic for me!  It’s also something that I can really hold onto and am able to enthusiastically transfer to others through the power of storytelling and sharing.  (Which is cool in and of itself, AND it ushers me forward in my own growth because it precipitates more social engagement and increased emotional intensity in my own experiences… see how that works? Growth-orientation feeds more growth!)

This past weekend, I took a road trip with friends to visit even more friends down in Florida.  We wanted to escape the winter for a while and get some sunshine, swim time, and some new experiences to forge new positive memories together.  Goals:  all accomplished and the trip exceeded all expectations.

boatfriends_smNovel Experience #1:  We canoed and kayaked around one of the local crystal clear headsprings (72 degree water, year ‘round) and got to swim with a multitude of wild manatees. We saw a family of manatees with a wee baby, and our individual manatee counts ranged from at least 6 to maybe 12-13 separate manatees.  Once we were in the water with them, they swam right up to us, often nudging us with their bodies or their noses.  I was snorkeling when 2 large adults swam directly up to one of my friends while I watched from about 5 feet away.  Once of those guys turned towards me and swam directly underneath me, touching the skin on my bare legs as he swam by.  It was truly an amazing experience!  As we swam slowly away from the headsprings, we were able to identify them as the water turned darker and more brackish.

I felt excited but calm; these large animals were clearly curious and totally trusting of us.  I felt a deep sense of connection and responsibility after I realized that most of the manatees had scars on their backs from propellers.  I was so grateful to be moving slowly and mindfully through their waters, a visitor inside what was clearly their territory.  When we got back in our boats to paddle upriver for a while, I just felt awestruck by how graceful these animals were and how they seemed to just immediately embrace our presence, in spite of their scars.  I think this experience taught me a valuable life coach lesson about trust, using my strengths (enthusiasm, curiosity, love of learning), and the golden secret of slowing down and paying close attention. If we had just jumped into a boat and sped away upriver, we never would have seen those welcoming creatures.

(Apologies for not being able to photograph the manatees; I wasn’t prepared with an underwater camera.  But you can see how happy we were after swimming with them!)

stepsintodevilsden_outside_smNovel Experience #2:  When you’ve been friends with a group of people for a time period now measured in decades, you all get to know each other REALLY well.  The super cool thing about that is that you’re able to perfectly predict the kinds of new experiences that ALL of you will enjoy, which makes it easier and easier to set up the possibility of new awesome memories you can create together.  Our second day of adventure on this trip was one of those, “I know people who want to come here even though they don’t know it exists yet” moments.  Our friend T, host with the most and partner in our cozy accommodations Rainbow River Club, had scouted out a place called “Devil’s Den” and we packed up with swimsuits, snorkel gear, and a picnic to go check it out!

stepsintodevilsden_smAfter signing our lives away on various waivers which required a steady stream of initialing down the side of a front and back sheet of paper, we walked carefully down a set of about 20 stone steps into a hole in the earth.  At the end of those stairs, we were standing on a rock ledge that had another 20 or so wooden steps leading down to a series of underwater platforms in the huge cave below, with sunlight streaming in from a gaping hole in the earth around the corner from where we’d entered the stone staircase.  As the light lit up the water, you could see straight through to the bottom of the cave about 75 feet below the water’s surface.  One person at a time (as instructed), we walked down the steps with our snorkels and flippers in hand.  Once we got the platform suspended in the 72°F water about knee deep, we put on gear and pushed off for a snorkeling adventure while scuba divers explored the depths below.  It was an incredible experience!  You could see all kinds of fishes and as you swam around, the light danced all around.  We had a private swim for about half an hour, exploring every nook and cranny we could get to without dive gear.  I’ve never seen anything remotely like it anywhere, and it just felt like we were in some fantasy adventure movie of some kind.  It was unreal and truly awesome.  Although we’re used to swimming in 60° mountain river water in the summertime, 72° with flecks of sun inside a cave is only tolerable on bare skin for so long!  So, we climbed back up the two very steep sets of stairs and found a sunny table to spread out a picnic and warm ourselves up like turtles on a log.  By the time we’d picnicked and walked around the old SCUBA training facility on the property and dried out in the sun and shared what our personal take on the place was, the sun had shifted significantly and there was more sun on the hole in the earth. “Let’s do it again!” and off we went back into the earth for another swim and exploration of this cave that had a bit more light on it now.  None of us wanted to leave, really, and have determined we would love to go back and spend some more time… and maybe go beyond the surface next time!

selfieinsidedevilsdenIt’s SO IMPORTANT to keep experiencing new things and growing our connections to friends and family in exciting and memorable ways that make us all FEEL GOOD.  Embracing change through self-selected growth is one of the keys to long-term happiness, brain health, and a positively oriented thriving life.  If you’re not doing anything new, or changing anything by using more of your strengths, we strongly encourage you to take on a challenge of some kind to do so!  Keeping your brain, your mind, your body and your spirit active and growing is the closest thing to the fountain of youth we’ve discovered!  Be well and be good to you and yours.  Namaste!