THE BLOG
11/18/2011 09:05 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

5 Ways to Nourish Your Mind This Thanksgiving

As you prepare for Thanksgiving, I hope you will consider how to best nourish your mind and those of your loved ones this year. Empowering your own mind, sharing new ideas and promoting brain-boosting activities are the best gifts you can bring to the table.

Too often, as we reunite with our families, we fall into conversational ruts. If your family reunions are like mine, left to their own devices, conversations default to mundane topics and if we're not careful, a rehash of past issues and rants. This year, why not whip up some new thought-provoking ideas and novel activities to enrich your family celebration?

I'll never forget the year my mother came into her own after all of her children had finally flown the coop. For the first time I could ever remember, she was pursuing her own interests rather than vicariously living through her children. Instead of reporting on the status quo of our sleepy upstate New York town, she relayed her own experiences returning to the classroom as a substitute teacher, her exploits taking swimming lessons and her new found passion for organic food. It was a refreshing and uplifting shift in our family dynamic. Conversation ventured into new arenas and through this enriched interaction, we not only shared new ideas and experiences but we also more truly enjoyed each other's company.

Looking back with a neurologist's perspective, I now understand how those conversations, spiced with new concepts and venturing into previously unexplored territory, stimulated brain activity. Engaging in substantial conversation and discussing new concepts, literally sparks changes in brain chemistry and structure. The prefrontal cortex which plays a key role in understanding and reasoning, revs up its metabolism. Novel experiences and exposure to information that we find meaningful or interesting triggers the release of dopamine, a "feel good" neurotransmitter, which in turn keeps us more attentive and brings us pleasure.

All of this activity is wonderful for our brain. Like a work of art in progress, our brain is constantly being shaped and re-designed throughout our lives. In fact, every experience and thought we have results in a corresponding change in our neurocircuitry. Enriching our day to day conversations and social interactions enhances our brain over time. Research also shows that meaningful and fulfilling social interactions are linked to better memory, improved cognitive functioning, and increased personal happiness. Most importantly, a gratifying social life appears to decrease an individual's future risk of dementia.

There are many ways you can stimulate conversation, trigger creative thinking and nourish the minds of those around your table this Thanksgiving. Here are some suggestions:

1.) Stay Current

Be on the lookout for interesting articles or news stories that you can share with others. Make a list of at least three conversation starters. Keeping a file of these topics along with books, movies or recent events you've enjoyed will allow you to engage in conversations that are more enjoyable and enriching for all.

2.) Charades Anyone?

Instead of draining your brain energy by watching TV, play a game that sparks creativity and promotes family bonding. "Dictionary Fake Out" is one of our family favorites. If your family routinely plays cards or board games, switch it up and introduce a new challenge this year that will stimulate your prefrontal cortex. Recently, my family learned how to play Canasta -- a South American card game. Abiding by new rules and deciphering new strategies is a fun way to promote mental flexibility.

3.) Moving Questions

Go for a walk to boost neuroplasticity and deepen your relationships. Regular physical activity increases brain volume, protects against dementia and improves mental performance. Taking a stroll is the perfect time to delve into thoughtful questions. Ask relatives to describe their greatest personal achievement, most significant challenge or happiest memory.

4.) Expand Your Table

Invite someone outside your usual clan to join the festivities. Diversifying your social network will open your mind to new perspectives and ideas. Last year, my son brought his roommate from Beijing to Thanksgiving dinner. Learning firsthand about Chinese culture and listening to a fresh take on American society was captivating.

5.) Give Thanks

Take a moment to find a special blessing, poem, song or sonnet to recite to your loved ones as you gather together before dinner. For those who are inspired, compose your own reflection or prayer. Memorizing lines or lyrics is an excellent memory exercise. One of my favorite family traditions is to join hands with those around our table and individually express thanks.

Have a Beautiful Brain Day and a memorable Thanksgiving.