How to Fill Your Brain’s “Protective Tank”

Most people are well aware that building up a savings account is part of good financial health. But it’s not as common knowledge that the same goes for brain health…

This concept is called cognitive reserve—a measure of your brain’s resilience to damage or aging.

You gradually build cognitive reserve throughout your entire life. It’s the sum total of the brain-friendly actions you’ve taken to enrich your cognitive health (like learning, physical activity, diet, interaction with people and the environment).

And the more brain stimulation you get, the stronger your brain connections become—resulting in a healthy, or “full,” cognitive reserve.

And the more cognitive reserve you have stored up, the less likely you are to experience mental decline, damage from a brain injury, or develop signs of dementia.

The good news is, it’s never too late to start building your cognitive reserve. Today I’ll show you how music can help.

Your growing brain

For decades, doctors believed that after you reached adulthood, the brain was pretty much done growing.

But over the last four decades or so, the medical community has found many flaws in that belief. Now, it’s widely accepted that the brain continues to grow, adapt, and change—well into our golden years. This process is known as neuroplasticity.

Essentially, neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to create new cognitive connections, reorganize communication pathways, and even produce new brain cells.

Every time you learn something new or have a memorable experience, your brain changes so it can retain that information. This is neuroplasticity at work. It helps you remember, reason, and focus.

And routinely reinforcing this cognitive ability is a major key in building up cognitive reserve.

Protection from cognitive reserve

In fact, in 2014, researchers completed a four-year study on 40 patients with multiple sclerosis (MS)—a devastating disease that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and body.

The researchers wanted to discover why some of the MS patients experienced cognitive decline while some maintained their cognitive abilities—even as the disease progressed.

It turns out, that the patients with more intellectual enrichment had less cognitive decline.

In other words, the patients with more cognitive reserve were able to protect their brain health for longer.

Build a better brain—with music

As I mentioned above, music can help increase your cognitive reserve.

One of the most effective ways to use music to give your cognitive reserve a boost is to actually make music yourself.

According to a recent report published by the Global Council on Brain Health and the AARP:

“Studies suggest that people who engage in music making as they age, either as a profession or continued a hobby, appear to have better brain health over the course of their lives compared to non-musicians. Music lessons can help build cognitive reserve during adulthood, and the beneficial process continues late in life. More frequent training seems to result in lower risk of dementia.”

(I talk more about how learning an instrument increases cognition in this article.)

Remember, anytime you learn something new, you’re helping to strengthen your brain connections!

But even simply listening to music—especially music you’ve never heard—can help increase your neuroplasticity…

Supplying your own stores of cognition

Here’s an easy cognitive reserve building exercise I made just for you—packed with several brain-stimulating elements.

I call it the New Music Brain Challenge.

  • Start by playing some new music you’ve never listened to before.

    It can be an artist that you love, but maybe an album you’re not too familiar with. Or you can turn on the radio or search your favorite genre with phrases like “new rock music” or “new folk music.”

    Or check out this song I recently wrote for my daughter Tupelo, as she was “leaving the nest.” It’s called “You In My Arms.”
  • Listen to one new song in its entirety. Take note of the lyrics, beat, or changes throughout.

    The novelty of listening to a song you don’t know challenges your brain to follow it and process all the new information.
  • After the song ends, I want you to continue listening to music you’ve never heard.
  • Now as you’re listening, I want you to look at a photograph of a loved one. (Bonus points if it’s an older photograph.)

    Here’s one of my favorites of my daughter Tupelo when she was just a little girl.
tupelo donovan
IMAGE SOURCE: Jim Donovan
  • As you look at your photo, reminisce about memories with this person.

    Doing this will help stimulate your hippocampus—the part of the brain where episodic memories (collections of past personal experiences) are stored. Exercising this part of the brain has been shown to stave off cognitive decline.
  • As you listen and reminisce, see if you can tap along to the beat of the music with your hands.

    Alternate them right–left–right–left to the beat the best you can.

    Following the beat and moving your limbs stimulates both hemispheres of your brain and helps them to communicate with each other more efficiently, as I wrote about here.

The more senses and brain processes you engage, the more powerful your cognitive reserves become.

And I challenge you to shake things up even beyond music! Get in the habit of exploring new, unfamiliar things. Try a new type of cuisine, learn a new skill, explore a new place… and keep at it! (As the old adage goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!”)

Every new thing you seek out engages and stimulates your brain—which is exactly what you need to thrive in your golden years.

P.S. – If you’re interested in learning more science-backed strategies for building a better brain, try my Sound Mind Protocol. This online learning course teaches all-nature approaches rooted in music, rhythm, and sound to help you unlock your peak brain abilities and shield your brain from the cognitive decline that comes with aging.

Click here to learn more or to get started today.


SOURCES:

Botek, A. (n.d.). The Memory Challenge: 8 Ways to Construct Cognitive Reserve. AgingCare. Retrieved from: agingcare.com/articles/build-your-cognitive-reserve-151939.htm

Fuchs, E. and Flügge, G. (2014). Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research. Hindawi. Retrieved from: hindawi.com/journals/np/2014/541870/

Global Council on Brain Health. (2020). Music on Our Minds: The Rich Potential of Music to Promote Brain Health and Mental Well-Being. AARP. Retrieved from: aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/health/brain_health/2020/06/gcbh-music-report-english.doi.10.26419-2Fpia.00103.001.pdf

Godman, H. (2018). Can I Bank Cognition Now for Old Age? U.S. News. Retrieved from: health.usnews.com/wellness/aging-well/articles/2018-12-21/what-is-cognitive-reserve-and-how-can-it-protect-your-aging-brain

Hötting K, Röder B. (2013). Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews. 37(9): pp. 2243–2257. Retrieved from: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23623982/

Keep Your Brain Young with Music. (n.d.) Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from: hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/keep-your-brain-young-with-music#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIf%20you%20want%20to%20keep,%2C%20mental%20alertness%2C%20and%20memory.

Kessler Foundation. (2014). Brain and cognitive reserve protect long-term against cognitive decline. Medical Xpress. Retrieved from: medicalxpress.com/news/2014-04-brain-cognitive-reserve-long-term-decline.html

Sumowski J., Chiaravalloti N., Krch D., Paxton J., and Deluca J. (2013). Education attenuates the negative impact of traumatic brain injury on cognitive status. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 94(12): pp. 2562 – 2564. Retrieved from: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23932968/

Sumowski J., Coyne J., Cohen A., and Deluca J. (2014). Retrieval practice improves memory in survivors of severe traumatic brain injury. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 95(2): pp. 397- 400. Retrieved from: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24231401/

Jim Donovan image
About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.