Photo Credit: Tzachi Yaffe

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously remarked that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  New research suggests that even reasonable consistency might pose a danger to your health and well-being.

A recent study by researchers at Texas A&M discovered a correlation between mortality rates and the shape of city parks.  Strange as it seems, if you live in a community with irregularly shaped green spaces, your chances of a longer and healthier life markedly improve.

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The study, however, identifies only correlation; it makes no attempt to explain causation.  Why should the shape of my local park affect my mental and physical health?

WHERE AM I?

Our brains love the familiar and the expected; our gray matter longs for anything predictable, orderly, and symmetrical.  But there’s evidence to suggest that symmetry and predictability are junk food for the brain.

If you quiz a random sampling of people on basic geography, most of them will place New York City east of Caracas, Venezuela, and San Diego west of Reno, Nevada.  In fact, they’re wrong on both counts.

It’s easy to understand their error.  We know that Venezuela lies toward the western side of South America, and New York sits on North America’s eastern seaboard; we know just as well that California is west of Nevada.

That basic awareness overrides the geographic nuances that lie right before our eyes every time we look at a map.  Both South America and Southern California swing dramatically eastward.

The problem is our brains’ craving for order and symmetry.  That’s why, no matter how long we stare at a map, the moment we look away our subconscious minds start pushing South America west until we visualize it directly below North America.

MENTAL GYMNASTICS

Unpredictability and disorder force our brains to work hard, to become more nimble, and to grow.  That takes energy – which is why an orderly work environment promotes more efficient work. However, the same way that our bodies get soft if we don’t visit the gym after we leave our jobs, our brains can get flabby if we don’t exercise them with the unfamiliar.

Perhaps that explains the benefit of open spaces that are not neatly defined rectangles or circles.  We have to work harder to cope with the unpredictability of free-form shapes, which makes our brains stronger, sharper and healthier.  And a healthier mind makes for a healthier body.

Similar research has found that our brains need to get out of the city and into the countryside.  Urban noises tend to be rhythmic and repetitive; rural sounds are irregular and haphazard.  The random sounds of water flowing, birds chirping, and leaves rustling in the wind shake our brains out of their lethargy and strengthen our neural pathways.

Now let’s apply this same principle to our daily lives.  What happens when we make time to learn, to expose ourselves to new information and new ideas, to shoulder different kinds of responsibilities, to strike up conversations with more distant acquaintances, to open ourselves up to points-of-view that challenge our preconceptions?

By seeking out new perspectives, aren’t we likely to keep our minds honed to a sharper edge?  Won’t that naturally benefit us with more successful work and healthier relationships?

The sages teach that one who learns as a child is compared to ink written on fresh paper, and one who learns in old age is like ink written on smudged paper.  The sages are not practicing age discrimination. Rather, they are encouraging us to approach the vast universe of experience with the eagerness and excitement of a child.  No matter what our chronological age, we should embrace novelty and discovery to stimulate our thinking and enliven our imaginations.

So what are you going to do today to shake up your brain?

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He is an ethics speaker, strategic storyteller, TEDx presenter, and author. He is also a recovered hitchhiker and circumnavigator, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher. Visit him at http://ethicalimperatives.com.