19/01/2017 5:47 AM AEDT | Updated 19/01/2017 12:11 PM AEDT

Here's How Picking Up A New Skill Can Help Your Brain

At any age.

The (mental) pursuit of happiness.
gremlin via Getty Images
The (mental) pursuit of happiness.

Was 2017 the year you were going learn piano? Or try your hand (or feet, rather) at salsa dancing?

If you're yet to pick up that new skill, the year is still young. And it's never too late (literally).

Don't worry, this isn't entirely another resolution story. According to the experts, engaging in new skills can do wonders for more than just our wellbeing as we age.

What happens in our brain?

Every time we learn something new, our brain changes in mysterious and quite substantial ways.

According to Muireann Irish, Associate Professor from Sydney University's School of Psychology and Brain and Mind Centre, increasing attention is being directed towards understanding how learning new skills can bolster cognitive functioning -- particularly as we age.

Ever heard the phrase 'use it or lose it'?

"This is in recognition of the fact that the human brain in 'plastic', meaning it is capable of reorganising and forming new neural connections throughout life," Irish told The Huffington Post Australia.

By taking on mentally challenging skills, we can potentially capitalise upon neuroplasticity to strengthen existing connections in the brain, or even forge new connections.

Cast your minds back to that time we talked about running and brain health. Well, the same scientific reasoning applies, here. It's called 'neurogenesis' -- literally the birth of new brain cells.

"The discovery of neurogenesis indicates that even as we age, we are capable of adapting and changing in response to our environment," Irish said.

"By taking on mentally challenging skills, we can potentially capitalise upon neuroplasticity to strengthen existing connections in the brain, or even forge new connections."

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Digital photography has been found to improve attention and working memory of older individuals.

Why do I need to be challenged?

Sorry folks, word puzzles or listening to music probably won't cut it. Digital photography will.

The nature of the activities we choose is crucial -- particularly for older people. Passive or less demanding activities have not been found to reap the cognitive benefits.

We need to mentally exert ourselves in order to see the benefits.

"Recent research has shown that engaging in an activity that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging may provide the necessary stimulation to bring about improvements in a number of high-level cognitive processes such as attention and working memory," Irish said.

One particular study on ageing and cognition put digital photography to the test.

"The key message from this work is that the quality of the activity is important and we need to mentally exert ourselves in order to see the benefits."

How about the enjoyment factor?

At the end of the day, trying something new should be about becoming a better, happier or more fulfilled person. Right?

For diversional therapist Margie Kannard, individual enjoyment should be at the top of the priority ladder.

"If you want improvement in your capacity -- mentally or physically -- there needs to be an element of pushing yourself. But when you're looking at quality of life, do what you love," Kannard told Huffpost Australia.

Does knitting bore you? Don't do it.

Diversional therapy treats those individuals who have developed a barrier to leisure -- from a young person with an acquired brain injury or an older person with dementia.

Getty Images/EyeEm
There's a lot to love about the tango.

"Our approach is always person-centred. For all of these people, it must always be about choice and what is appropriate for the individual," Kannard said.

"More broadly, if you choose something that you want to be doing, it will put you ahead of the game in terms of reaping the benefits, both from a quality of life and health perspective."

Irish agrees.

"Humans, and indeed animals, have evolved to experience pleasure and we actively seek out opportunities to derive pleasure from a variety of concrete and abstract sources," Irish said.

"It makes sense to engage in learning new skills that are rewarding as this will ensure that motivation is high and that the behaviour is maintained."

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