Not that I am in the habit of turning to semi-obscure TV sitcom stars for wisdom, but I once found in the newspaper a quote from Jenna Elfman that struck me as so wise, I clipped it and kept it over my desk for years.
Guru Elfman said, “Do other things. I don’t just act. It starts to feel like you’re digging into an open wound when you do the same thing all the time. It becomes achy, sore, and tiresome.”
After reading that, I took up gardening, calling it the antidote for journalism. I’ve since discovered I have zero talent for gardening (please don’t ask about my Garden Bed of Death). But I still pursue hobbies that are nothing like writing because I think Elfman is exactly right—constantly worrying the same neurons with the same or similar activities does seem to make them sore. After a day of writing, even reading feels like putting my feet back in the shoes that raised a blister.
Now I’m wondering if there are activities that are cognitive opposites. I have returned to a couple of beloved old hobbies—sewing and knitting—and these are keepers. I find sewing soothing to my brain because although it requires concentration, it is tactile, presumably causing different neurons to fire than are chugging away as I write this. Does knitting, which relies heavily on muscle memory, allow my executive function to take a coffee break?
I know that whatever we do most strengthens that particular part of our brains. Doing crossword puzzles, for example, is good for the crossword puzzle-doing parts of our brains if not for, say, the modern-dancing part. And Sandra Chapman, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth, told me that when the center works with people who have had a stroke, “We see people who lose a lot of their ability, but the first thing to come back is whatever they did the most.”
To use an imperfect analogy: In physical exercise, counterbalance is important. If you work your abs, you need to work your back as well, or you throw your musculoskeletal system out of whack. Figuring out counterbalances to sit-ups is pretty easy. Is there research out there about counterbalancing brain activity? What is the antidote for journalism? What is the opposite of what you do all day? Do you think we gravitate towards hobbies that balance us?
(P.S. If you’re as fascinated by the brain as I am, here’s a great podcast from the first-rate Australian radio show, All In The Mind.)
(P.P.S. I also had a quote from Ricky Martin over my desk: “You have to dare to suck in order to be great.” In my defense, he’s not a sitcom star; he’s a pop music star. And those are wise words, too.)