Having a purpose strengthens your brain


Cartoon StockA story in Science Daily caught my eye recently. It was titled, “Greater Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated With Alzheimer’s Disease.” That suggested a different approach to brain ailments than what I’ve usually read. Most are medical or surgical. This one is philosophical.

I’m not one for either self-help or New Age palaver. Most of it strikes me as unmitigated pap that borders on the religious. It’s like the gazillions of diet books and websites. I’m not sure which would rake in the millions faster: to form a new religion or a new diet plan.So when I see something about a “purpose-driven life” I tend to shy away in case it involves angels, spirit guides, auras, ghosts or ten people you’ll meet in heaven. Or hell.

But when someone in the science community comments that purpose has more use than filling one’s days or creating fodder for self-help gurus, that it may have medical and biological implications, then I perk up and listen.

“Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains,” said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.
“These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.”

In other words, as I read it: purpose makes you think better. Well, council watchers may want to debate that issue.

I know people today, including many people younger than I am, who don’t read to exercise their brains, don’t play interactive games (like chess, go, bridge), don’t do anything creative as a hobby (like write, play music, garden, take photographs). They work, they watch TV, they sleep. TV – a passive device programmed by media giants who want to control your life and consumer habits – is their main source of information, entertainment, opinion and education. What sort of purpose in life does watching TV fulfill?

By the terms of this study, they’re dementia patients in the making. Anyone who wastes hours of their life watching such dreck as “Survivor” or “American pickers” probably won’t notice the onslaught of dementia…

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project who did not have dementia and who subsequently died and underwent brain autopsy. Participants received an annual clinical evaluation for up to approximately 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.
Participants also answered questions about purpose in life, the degree to which one derives meaning from life’s experiences and is focused and intentional. Brain plaques and tangles were quantified after death. The authors then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older persons accumulated plaques and tangles.

What the study suggests is that doing something creative or goal-oriented that requires some effort to start, develop and complete a project helps stave off some of the physiological problems that are seen in Alzheimer’s and other senility-related ailments. Obviously TV watching isn’t goal-oriented.

The study didn’t look at or correlate other studies that have shown how reading stimulates brain activity and also helps ward off dementia and senility. Which is unfortunate, because I believe the two have an obvious relationship. Reading is probably the most powerful activity you can do to keep your brain active and engaged.

The start, I suggest, to developing goals and purpose, is to turn off the TV. The next step is to find something creative to do. Build a deck. Plan a garden. Paint a room. Write a blog. Take photographs. Learn a new word or a new language. Play a game of chess or backgammon. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play a musical instrument (or learn one). Train your dog to do a trick. Better yet, train your cat.

Do something active, something with a goal, a focus. It doesn’t have to be very big, or exciting or momentous. As long as you get off the couch and away from the TV.

At the very least, read a book. Books will give you ideas, goals, will inspire you, tease your imagination and make you smarter, wiser, more cultured and better looking (okay, maybe not the last one). Books will serve you much better than TV ever will. You don’t have to give up TV for good; just share your time with things that make you smarter, better, wiser, more educated, more intelligent and less prone to dementia than TV.

Just lay off the self-help books. Once you wean yourself from the TV you’ll probably find that tour life has a lot of purpose and meaning and you won’t need the self-help gurus.

3 thoughts on “Having a purpose strengthens your brain


  1. ““Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life….”

    I don’t doubt that the correlation exists….but that is a long way from establishing or explaining a causal relation between the two. Does having a purpose in life increase cognition, or does better cognition drive us towards having a purpose? Or are both related to a completely unmentioned cause (or causes). This would also explain the correlation wouldn’t it.
    The world is full of correlations…some expected and some not. But the real science comes in explaining these correlations (eg using experimental evidence – as opposed to mere speculation – to determine causal links).


  2. Well, we agree… it may be Jung’s synchronicity rather than a causal relationship that has been identified.
    Have you read Freakonomics? It’s a fascinating look at non-intuitive relationships in the economic sphere. There are a few other similar titles out there. It’s a very entertaining topic.
    But of course I’m not as nearly concerned about causality as being able to use the story as a soapbox for my screed against TV and the ill-considered passive life…;-) I suppose I was influenced a trifle too much by Thoreau in my formative years,. I recall he wrote about most men going through life unaware and unawake… TV is the device that keeps us thus.

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