Humans are designed to adapt. Over time, we repeat certain tasks regularly and fall into a rhythm. After a point in time, these tasks no longer require energy or our undivided attention. But, in this autopilot state, are we missing out on life?
Karen Anne Hope Andrews, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, seems to think so. In her opinion, new experiences and challenges help us grow physically, emotionally and even professionally.
She said: “Trying new things is good for our psychological health because overcoming the challenge of stepping out of our comfort zone builds our self-confidence and self-esteem. As children, we bravely embrace new experiences and seek them out. As adults, it’s harder to break out of our comfort zone, but so worth it because our inner child is stimulated and delighted by seeing, feeling, thinking and experiencing new things.”
Then why is it that people continue to cruise through life and are sometimes even afraid to try new things? Andrews explains that as humans, it is normal to have a fear of the unknown.
She said: “Habits are powerful and trying new things brings the possibility of immediate costs if we don’t like the result. We risk not liking the new thing, we risk failure, we fear feeling incompetent or silly or we fear the judgement of others if we aren’t immediately good at something.”
Studies state that a brain game, like Sudoku or crossword puzzles, can help delay dementia and Alzheimer’s. The US based Fisher Centre for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation states that engaging in mentally challenging tasks in the early and middle years are important for preventing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque, a toxic protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.
Andrews said: “Trying new things feeds our creativity. There is plenty of research to support how learning new skills and forcing both parts of our brain to ‘exercise’ by solving puzzles like Sudoku is beneficial to our brain. We combine this information in new ways and ideas to find patterns, which provokes a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. This also helps keep stress at bay.”
It seems like having a routine, or fixed habits, is reassuring for people and gives them a sense of security and peace. But, according to Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, children have to be stimulated from a young age to try new things in order to make them “stronger emotionally, reduce the sense of anxiety that might occur when our rigid routine is changed and stimulate our curiosity and imagination”.
She said: “It is understandable that some people might develop a sense of anxiety when things in their life change. Any new stimulation to our mind activates areas of our brain that we might not train so often. Sudoku for example is very good to stimulate the cognitive areas of memory. Keeping our brain trained can only be beneficial in delaying even the natural process that comes with age.”
She goes on to state that new activities can also stimulate an individual’s social and emotional levels. For example, if an introvert started going to the gym, it could help this individual overcome social anxieties and meet new people.
She said: “Memory is a basic and essential skill in the learning processes. So, if we train our memory and create new ideas in our mind, our ability to learn is improved. People who never change or do anything different or new tend to ruminate over the past and tend to feel more depressed, and generally lack enthusiasm.”
While English is popularly known as the world’s global language, learning a new language is another task that many studies support. In fact, a study conducted by US-based Harvard University confirms that learning additional languages increases “critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind in young children”.
Antje Von Suchodoletz, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi, highlights a similar study conducted in the US that focuses on the benefits of children growing up bilingual.
She said: “Managing two languages places children in a dual-task situation that demands higher-level cognitive processes. Bilinguals maintain conversations using the appropriate language in a given context, flexibly shift between the two languages when needed and inhibit one language while using the other.”
However, she does emphasise that this might depend on the context in which the second language is used, that is at school or at home, and on whether the minority language is spoken at home.
Dr John Mathew, an occupational psychologist based in Dubai, is fully supportive of people stepping out of their comfort zones to try something new. After years of being a medical professional, his passion for music pushed him to join lessons to learn how to play the guitar.
He said: “A car that doesn’t get used for long, in most cases will have issues starting. I feel the brain is in a similar stage. It has been designed to be used. My music teacher asks how I manage to practice playing the guitar regularly, with three growing children at home and a full-time job. For me, it has been a burning passion for music and not having given it enough time earlier.”
All said and done, trying something new will give you a fantastic story to share later on in life. Be it solving the most difficult puzzle or just jumping off a cliff with a chord tied to your feet, you will create memories to last a lifetime.
Dr Mathew said: “When my wife and I decided to participate in the Dubai Fitness Challenge, it turned into a sense of competition amongst peers. Having tried something never done before by me personally, it’s a story I have now to share.”