I don’t know about you, but I find it a daily challenge to distinguish between being busy and being engaged, between doing what is urgent and doing what matters, and between being full and being satiated and gratified.
Research on what sustains long-term mental vitality offers us clues about how these distinctions can be made each day.
Our brains are insatiably hungry organs. This is as true at the nutritional level as it is on the sensory/mental level. Our brains consume 25-35% of the energy our body produces even though it weighs less than 5% of our body weight. And, just as what we feed our body makes a huge difference in our physical health, what we “feed” our mind makes a major difference in our long-term mental health and well-being.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plutarch said, “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” His sage advice is relevant on several fronts. Long-term health suffers when we are oriented primarily to what is most pressing or demanding. Excessively surrendering to perceived demands (often fueled by other’s expectations or hollow voices that ring loudly in our minds) may drive us to keep busy, but it's a poor substitute for what feeds our hearts and souls.
Plutarch recognized this. He encouraged us to shift from settling for simply filling our days or being mindlessly busy. Having a day filled with tasks, demands, and expectations, all doused with a heaping helping of urgency, may succeed in keeping us busy, but it may simultaneously dull our mind, exhaust our emotional reserves and, over time, usher in a cascade of stress-related illnesses.
The second half of Plutarch’s message is equally important. By describing the mind as a fire to be kindled he emphasizes the importance of passion for keeping our brains vital and vibrant. The more a fire is fed, the brighter and more intense it becomes. So too with our minds. One of the greatest sources of mental kindling is curiosity.
Curiosity stimulates our brains with novel experiences. In response, our brain’s neurons begin to re-wire (neuroplasticity), creating new connections to other nerve cells, and enriching our brain’s ability to function at its best.
Today’s neuroscientists can give appropriate thanks to Plutarch for pointing us in the direction that their cutting edge research is revealing each day: Long-term brain health truly depends of a steady diet of curiosity-driven passion.
Ready for a curiosity practice? The video below offers a few ideas to help you ignite curiosity and nourish your brain: