THE BLOG
08/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why New York City is Good for the Brain

Our brains love to be challenged and stimulated. Tourists and settlers alike, seeking adventure, culture and business are ever flooding this city because something about New York does just that, challenges and stimulates us...and our brains.

It's "use it or lose it" when it comes to building brain fitness, strength and resilience. Like any muscle, our brains atrophy from lack of use but will actually grow new neuronal connections through the kind of brain exercise that New York City is constantly offering up. Who needs crossword puzzles? The brain is far more "plastic" than anyone a half a decade ago dared to imagine, brains keep changing throughout our lives. New York City, in this way is like a huge brain that is constantly combining and recombining itself, paring down old, unused parts and building up others, making new connections at every turn. This is how our brain operates, too. Learning is a process of paring down and building up new constellations of cells and interconnections. The last decade of brain research has clearly revealed that people who daily do something to exercise their brains, like play sudoko or crossword, puzzles actually keep their brains younger and fitter.

Think of New York City as a huge crossword puzzle that you are constantly solving. It is an ever evolving plethora of sounds, sights, smells and experiences that, if we're open to them, act literally as brain fertilizer. Our cognitive or thinking part of the brain can get a real workout just from sorting through categorizing and thinking about all of the "information" that are senses (read: limbic/feeling/sensing brai) feeds it from this unique city. The sights, sounds, smells and grand variety of the city are actual fodder for brain growth, just solving daily life in New York City requires that we use our brains in new ways at every turn. Our brains benefit seeing new things, thinking new thoughts and doing new stuff as well as from processing the same old information in new ways.

And then there's the social or interactive side of our brains. Our "social brain" gets a workout in New York just buying a cappuccino, standing in line or dealing with co-workers. We're social creatures and parts of our brain and limbic systems are actually built for interaction. Few places offer as many opportunities (some may argue too many but our brains may not agree) as does The Big Apple. Let's face it, New York City is one big jungle gym when it comes to providing rungs to reach for and climb all over along with friends to climb with. It's choc full of "things to do, places to go and people to see".

If you walk to work or when you do your errands as so many New Yorkers do, you'll add the body in there too. Physical exercise elevates our levels of the natural mood stabilizing body chemical serotonin. That spurt of serotonin that walking causes, will calm your body and brain and enable you to think more clearly, observe more keenly and feel more balanced. A cheap and cheerful solution to mental and physical health if ever there were one.

So walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and see it as you never have, get out into Central Park and let the kaleidoscope of sweet scents, birds, people and plants fill your senses, go to a play, a museum, people watch, observe, wonder, delight in both the ordinary and the absurd. As you move through your day notice new things and think new thoughts because in this case, what's good for the brain is also good for body and soul. Timothy Leary reflected that "we are dealing with the best-educated generation in history. But they've got a brain dressed up with nowhere to go." Try New York City.