As final exams approach and as summer nears, it is easy to become lost in the euphoric idea of two whole months with no class, no studies, and no extra homework. This means two months to let your brain rest and decompress after a long year of hard work. However, this period of relaxation should not prevent you from continually trying to challenge your brain and keep yourself mentally stimulated. As a student, just having studied the past ten months, it’s natural to want a mental break, but you should not avoid all things scholastic.
Why should you not give yourself a complete mental vacation?
The answer to this question is a simple adage: “use it or lose it”. There is a lot of evidence to support this very simple and probably overused saying. This has to do with neuroplasticity, also referred to as brain plasticity. The brain contains billions of neurons that are continually changing and forming new connections. It was once thought that after childhood these neurons just stopped developing, but this is not the case. As it turns out, the brain is a very malleable, and as we learn new things the brain rewires itself to develop new neural connections.
It is like riding a bike! The first time on a bike, for anyone, is a challenge, and it takes time and effort to remain upright and moving. But once the skill of staying on a moving bike is achieved, it is one that seems to stick with you no matter how long it’s been since you last jumped on a bike. The initial process of learning to ride was so challenging because those neural connections were not yet developed. It took practice and effort to establish those connections and then effort to reinforce them so they become permanently stored in long term memory.
By now you may be thinking, “Well, I spent ten month forming those neural connections, they should stay there forever right”? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The less you use acquired skills or knowledge, the more likely they are to just be forgotten. This can be contributed to the brain’s plasticity. The most critical period of brain development occurs during childhood. This is when a high quantity of unnecessary information is removed, while other skills, like riding a bike or speaking a language, become cemented as a foundational part of us.
This ability to learn and to eliminate information is not just an aspect of our childhood, it continues on throughout life, but not as drastically as when we were children. When we learn something we form those neural connections, but the less we use this knowledge, the less important our brain thinks that information is, and the higher chance those neural connections will fade and eventually be forgotten.
The moral of the story is that the more you stimulate your brain, the more neural connections you form and the stronger those connections become. Just because those connections are there, however, does not mean they will stay there forever. The more complex the stimulation, the easier it becomes to better acquire and hone information. While it is important to continue to challenge yourself mentally, it is also important to enjoy your time away from your studies. Find something that interests you, whether that means reading a book you enjoy or learning a new athletic skill. You can still learn away from class and formal studies, so take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.