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Take a grade-school approach to your grown-up brain

A Manhattan-based friend was telling me a few years ago how the lives of parents and their bright three-to-five-year-old children had become surprisingly complicated in the big city.

What struck me as madness then - standardized tests, interviews and admission essays, and that was just to get a good spot in preschool or kindergarten - turned out to be, rather than another quirk of New York, a developing trend in Vancouver, Toronto and elsewhere across Canada.

And it all comes down to how one best develops a brain.

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The brain is involved in everything we experience and all that we do. Given how much it changes throughout the first decade or two of life, factors that influence brain development can have a critical impact on a young person's chances of success. This may explain the extra effort parents make to ensure that their kids receive the best training, education and life experience.

A deeper mystery is why the majority of these brain-development efforts are aimed only at the young. Perhaps this is a vestige of the long-prevailing view that damage, disease and age-related decline are the only types of brain changes possible beyond adolescence. Without any hope of enhancing how an adult brain works, why waste time on further development efforts?

Fortunately, advances in brain science have provided a new outlook. One of the key discoveries is that focused practice at specific tasks can lead to changes in the function and physical structure of the brain throughout our lives. Such adaptability is known as experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Consider the drivers of London's elite Black Cabs. Their experience memorizing city routes and landmarks has been associated with size increases in regions of the hippocampus, a part of the medial temporal lobe involved in spatial navigation and memory.

The message is clear: Factors that influence brain development can be critical for a grownup's chances of success too. And while neuroscientists are just beginning to understand the various ways in which the brain continues to change over time, their progress can already guide your choice of activities to help protect and fine-tune your precious neural and cognitive resources.

For instance, we all know how easily our best-laid plans can go out the window when faced with one of life's many distractions - even a phone call or someone stopping by to say hi. The ability to avoid such distractions or quickly refocus is therefore a key to achievement. This explains why some of the most promising advances in adult brain development are those aimed at enhancing such acts of cognitive control.

Perhaps the best example of this is meditation, which typically involves controlling the focus of attention and one's emotional response. Several studies have documented the resulting improvements in concentration and emotional balance. Brain scans have also revealed meditation-related changes in the physical structure of regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive control and in the emotionally intense amygdala.

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Mental stimulation also helps. Animals raised in enriched environments, with enhanced novelty and complexity, also have enriched brains. The connections between their brain cells, for example, are stronger and greater in number than in animals raised in environments without the same level of stimulation. For humans, highly immersive environments and challenging activities - speaking a second language, playing a musical instrument, even juggling - also feature heavily in leading examples of neuroplasticity.

Just like those good kindergarten spots, the more immersive and engaging the activities, the better.

Your brain deserves the best too.

Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is an associate professor in neuroscience at the University of Guelph.

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