Fire Your Dendrites

These books on my night stand are the ones I'm working on right now.

The other day when I bumped into a friend, I was greeted with this inquiry: “What are you reading?”  As I was wondering how she knew I was reading anything, it occurred to me that a lifelong learner is always reading something. It just so happened that I was carrying around a novel that was recommended to me but just not doing anything for me, so we lodged into a spirited debate about whether or not I ought to feel compelled to finish a novel once I’ve started it. I learn by leaps and bounds when I engage people in discussions about dilemmas that don’t necessarily have a right or a wrong answer!  What else besides reading, discussing, and questioning can a lifelong learner do?  Here are a Dozen Do's from an article I originally wrote for Change Magazine:
  1. Enroll in a Continuing Education Course: If you’d like to sharpen a skill you already have or gain a new skill, why not look at your community education program. In a recent brochure that came in the mail, opportunities to learn about calligraphy or cooking, painting or photography, guitar or gardening abound. These enrichment courses open the door to your brain to stretch and grow while creative juices flow and produce cool stuff like, in some classes, produce.
  2. Join a Book Club or PLC: You’re likely to be really challenged if you’re spending time with people who like to think. Find five other readers and agree on what novel or self-help book you’ll read next. Get together to discuss, then enjoy the new perspective. Based on the work of Richard DuFour, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) allow for colleagues to collaborate and learn from one another while they build trust and put action plans in place to maximize their students’ learning. Thinkers sharing what they think with other thinkers generate palpable brainpower.
  3. Collect Stuff: My seventh-grade teacher charged us to “hoard words like a coin collector,” to learn new words, discover their origins, and to figure out their orthography. So why not enrich your vocabulary by collecting a new word every day. Or start a coin collection. Find out where the coins originated, where they were minted, and what they’re worth. Or collect stamps. Sorting and cataloguing them will keep you thinking.
  4. Seek out Teaching Opportunities: You don’t have to have a degree in education to teach. Learning is solidified as you teach skills to others. I became a better knitter, for example, as I taught people to knit. What skill would you like to share? Start in your church, at a community center, or in a school. Be a mentor and see what you learn!
  5. Blog: Reading and writing online through blogs can be a great way to stay up on the latest research in and observations specific topics of interest to you. Journal your thoughts and chew on the reflections of others.
  6. Take an Online Course: Consider getting an advanced degree, license, or certification through an online program like the University of Utah online that offers “one-evening get-aways, Friday evening date nights, and Sunday field trips.” The ever-popular University of Phoenix, a pioneer in online degrees “offers online and on-campus degree programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level — each is a balanced combination of academic theory and practical application.” If you don’t have the time or money for an entire course, sign up for a webinar that piques your interest.
  7. Puzzle Yourself: Lifelong learners don’t necessarily need textbooks. Research suggests that puzzles will also keep your brain waves rippling. Traditional table-top or 3D jigsaws provide hands-on, kinesthetic learning while Sudoku, crosswords, and word search puzzles offer a more abstract, academic task. Better yet, create a puzzle of your own for a family member or friend to solve.
  8. Travel: Traveling allows your brain to experience new territory as you cross over boundaries that normally keep you protected, safe and secure. Research places to visit, either foreign or domestic. Calculate the cost to get there and back. Explore learning opportunities while you’re there, like visiting the Art Museum or taking in a play at a local theater. Experience the culture by taking a back-roads tour and trying some traditional cuisine. Ask questions about the history and traditions. Can’t afford a real trip?  Planning a virtual trip is just a click away. Or host a foreign exchange student and bring the cultural experience into your home.
  9. Learn another Language: Think you’re too old to acquire another language? Think again. There are a myriad of ways to get exposure to a second language. Sign up for a conversational course first to see if you like it. You can use audio CDs to listen to and learn the language in your vehicle. Try acquiring vocabulary by watching television in another language. Find a teenager who’s also learning that course and become study buddies. Or use an online translator to make post-it notes for common areas like on the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator door. Not too interested in a spoken language? Give Latin or Sign Language a shot.
  10. Pursue Music Lessons: Playing a musical instrument or simply taking voice lessons might strike a chord with some of you. A University of California research team has shown in experiments with adults that music — either performing it or listening to it – has the power to enhance some kinds of higher brain function. Start small with a recorder or ukulele and watch your dendrites crescendo to new heights.
  11. Start a Dinner Club: Gather some friends to join you for a monthly gathering around the dinner table. But don’t settle for just the ordinary – make it extraordinary.  Agree to research ethnic dishes and try new recipes. Explore the traditions of the region to share with your guests. Dress in customary garb for more authenticity.  Serve the meal as they would in the country that you’re highlighting.
  12. Do Charitable Work: Never underestimate the power of giving back. Find a charity that sparks your interest. I love to knit for charity to help Save the Children; my daughter enjoys her volunteer work with her Longhorn Band Service Sorority at school. Research a cause and find out how you can help, then enJOY the power of the Pay It Forward experience.
What do you do to fire your dendrites?


  1. Barbara...These are all great ideas! At one time or another, I have done them all! It is so good for us to try new things. I come from a long line of life-long learners. We are not afraid to try something new!

  2. To fire my dendrites, I read, blog, attend workshops, take online classes, tweet, play BUNCO each month, on AEA Board of Directors, talk with colleagues, exercise, and just generally overwhelm my dendrites on a daily basis! :)



I really enjoy hearing from my readers; thanks for sharing your reflections with us!