10 Ways to Cultivate a Mental Diet that Elevates the Quality of Your Life
Monday June 22, 2020

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“I’m not so worried about the dangers of mental junk food. That’s because I’ve found that many of the true intellectuals I’ve met take pleasure in mental junk food too. Having a taste for trashy rom-coms hasn’t rotted their brain or made them incapable of writing great history or doing deep physics. No, my worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the ‘theory of maximum taste.’ This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.” —David Brooks, The Atlantic, a commencement address/article for the Class of 2020

Stretching, holding a stretch, that is just a smidge further than you have stretched before is uncomfortable but not painful.

Stretching our mind, our consciousness is not easy because it isn’t something we have done before, whatever that “something” might be. However, as David Brooks urges, we must continue to expose our minds to new ideas, new-to-us information, in order to elevate the quality of our lives, the quality of our decisions, our behavior, our relationships, our health and yes, our world.

As we become settled into a routine, a life, that works for us, that is comfortable, it becomes tempting and ever-more easy to stay within this routine, this knowledge-base, this way of living. Each of us, depending upon where we are in our lives and what is going on around us with our family, career, friends, the world, health, will resist a little bit if not a lot if it is something that is new, so much that, it requires more energy initially. Energy is finite, and thus, we desire to conserve it for tasks we know, or think we must, tend to.

The theory of maximum taste according to Brooks is “The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.”

So how do we expand our mental diet, how do we ‘maximize taste’ as Brooks suggests regarding the theory of stretching the mind and its consciousness?

1.First, reflect.

When were you challenged mentally in the past? Was it in a particular class, by a particular skill you had to learn that was new to you and your muscle memory? Was it a particular event that exhausted you mentally because you had, you were forced, to do something new that you may not have chosen voluntarily, however the outcome eventually proved itself to be fruitful for your quality of life.

As much as you want to examine what you when you were forced to learn something new, think as well about the skills you know how to do currently, and the ease with which you engage in them. You didn’t always know how to type, to write computer code, to speak a particular favorite language, to do a particular math equation, but if you do any of these or other things easily and with pleasure, remind yourself that you had to learn them. And you can learn something new again, and again, and again, and again.

2. Explore a topic about which you do not have a firm, logical grasp

It’s one thing to have an opinion, it is another to understand and to be able explain logically, without emotion, why you have that opinion and thus to build credibily from those listening critically.

Today, in our world, the opinions are swirling infinitely, but this is not new. What is new in our twenty-first century is the ability to explore and acquire new knowledge from a variety of sources more easily than ever before. Choose to explore what you don’t know because simply having an opinion does not make your right. Credibility is gained when you do the homework, when you show time and attention to a particular matter, when you speak with verifiable facts, logic, as well as anecdotal evidence to support the logical and humanize the situation about which you are speaking.

3. Travel

Whether physically travel (when we are safely able to do so) or virtually travel via books, films, online tours, etc., and choose to seek out more information about what has already tickled your curiosity.

4. Let go of being the expert everywhere you go and instead be the student

While feeling productive and sharing your knowledge is a healthy practice of contributing to your work, your family, your community and shouldn’t be dismissed, choose also to continue to be the student in the activities you seek out, the people you spend time with, the books you read, etc.

Just as nobody enjoys the know-it-all student in the class (referring to a student in the class, not the person chosen to teach the class), if you find yourself unchallenged where you are, seek out classes, courses, etc. that do challenge you, that keep you listening rather than declaring, that keep you asking questions to deepen your learning rather than challenging the instructor in a disrespectful way to prove your intelligence.

Each of us, along our life’s travels, will be at a different stage of learning and understanding about any number of topics. Choose the “class” that stretches you, but respect that everyone is on their own journey and may need what you have had the fortune to learn already.

5. Understand that anyone can improve their cognitive abilities

No matter what your age, no matter what your level of intelligence at this very moment, you too can improve your cognitive abilities. In other words, for the purposes of our discussion today, you can increase the upper-limits of your mind’s capabilities. (Learn more about the study that discovered this finding here.)

6. Seek out novelty

“First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections—learning is taking place.”Andrea Kuszewski, author analyzing Scientific American study

Try something new. Anything. From something as seemingly simple as a new food or cooking skill, to a new exercise regimen to visiting a new town, state, country, etc.. Seek it out and stretch your mind. When you begin to seek out novelty in your own dosage regularly, you become more comfortable with stretching. In other words, you become more comfortable with learning new information. And while you may appear to become more comfortable trying new foods, if that is where you choose to seek out novelty, the skill you are strengthening does not solely apply to food but is fluid to anything that may be new.

7. Think outside the box to solve seemingly unsolveable problems

Being creative does not mean you need to do something artistic to solve a problem. Instead, thinking creatively in this instance is to think differently, to challenge your previous way of thinking to complete a task or solve a problem that has yet to produce the results you seek. Such an exercise requires you to use all of your mind – your right and your left – to seek out new sources, to welcome in ideas from arenas that may not seem related what-so-ever to the task at hand, but actually could provide a new approach.

8. Expand your network

“By exposing yourself to new people, ideas, and environments, you are opening yourself up to new opportunities for cognitive growth.”Andrea Kuszewski

It is comfortable and feels safe to remain around those individuals you know. Whether it is how they think, how they behave, etc., only spending time with such people doesn’t stretchyou. This is not to suggest you should toss everyone or anyone who you currently enjoy being around to the curb. However, when we choose to expand our network whether it be in work, in classes, in our travels, etc. we are exposed to new ideas, new information and the responsiblity is ours to critically think our way through all of the new information we receive from them. Cognitively, we are exercising our minds and that is an exercise we need to regularly partake in.

9. The easy way isn’t always the best way

Simply because you can buy dinner at amazing restaurants each night of the week without ever having to use your stove, doesn’t mean you should. It also doesn’t mean you need to cook every single meal you eat. Similarly, Kuszewski explains, while we have transportation to take us to work, to carry us around the world, it does not mean we shouldn’t physically move to places we need to go. We need to physically move our bodies even if a machine could do it for us each and every time for our physical good health and well-being.

Muscles atrophy when they are not used. Skills diminish when they are not keep tuned up, so consider tasks you may be able to pay someone to do or could have an app do for you, and instead challenge your mind to figure it out on its own to keep it in shape and supple.

10. Sign up for music lessons/language lessons/etc.

Challenging your mind and its ability to learn something new can be daunting, but perhaps you want to learn something that would bring you more joy or deepen your ability to explore another arena that is of great interest to you. For example, like many of you, I love the French culture. My French language capabilities however, leave much to be desired. However, I keep trying to learn, and that journey has been a delight. Similarly with music. If you began and perhaps stopped when you were younger playing a particular instrument or maybe you have always wanted to learn but thought it was too late, let me reassure you, it is absolutely not too late to learn a musical instrument. Give it a try, and remind yourself (and those that are listening as you learn), that you are improving the upper-level of your mind’s ability no matter how melodious it sounds.

Each of us will choose to stretch our minds in our own way as the stretching will be personal. For myself, as I shared above, the French language continues to stretch me. I also am enjoying the stretching of my mind when it comes to gardening and birds, and with reference to #2, I am choosing to explore more about racism and my own ignorance about white privilege. When it comes to travel, I am itching to hop on a plane to Britain and France – terribly so, and cannot wait to make my first plans abroad. Whether it is exploring more about food, terroir, historical influence, or cooking techniques and ideas, I am doing what I can at home by reading and viewing experts in all sorts of arenas in these genres. As you make your way through the list above, take your time exploring what stretching yourself would look like and do your best to incorporate what excites you as well as what unsettles you. Often it is the fear of what we do not know that creates the push-back from learning more. The good news is that often, when we push through this fear and discomfort deciding instead to learn, thus stretching our mind, our discomfort is eased and our clarity deepens as well as widens.

Learning takes energy, and when we are exhausted or our schedule feels too full already, choosing to learn something may be the last thing we want to do. However, I would argue, that if we want a better life, we need to choose to live smarter. “Smarter” in this instance is two-fold: yes, we are improving our mind’s upper-threshold of awareness and knowledge and consciousness; but we are also improving our ability to make the best decisions for how we wish to live.

Take a moment today or over the weekend many moments and explore what is truly fulfilling in your life and equally so, examine what is a drain. Then do what you can to try and welcome more mental exercise into your routine or approach to living. In time, I am confident you will see an improved quality of everyday living in your life.


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15 thoughts on “10 Ways to Cultivate a Mental Diet that Elevates the Quality of Your Life

  1. Very interesting post as I already cultivate many of these habits. It’s good to know these steps lead to mental acuity and excellence! Thank you.

  2. Dear Shannon, it’s definitely been at least three or four years that I have been coming to this space to enjoy your work. I have never commented but feel compelled to let you know that I really appreciate having a space like this to come to, be inspired, and learn more about life. Thank you so much. If there are ways to better support you, please do let us know.

  3. OK, it’s not fair to start with the gorgeous flowers (a rose?) and not say what that is. I’m going to embark on a quest to figure out what it is, unless you know!

    1. Alison, aren’t those blossoms beautiful! You know, I came across those while in Wallowa County this weekend at a drive up coffee shop and neither my mother or myself knew what they were. They were captivating.

  4. This was an excellent posting. I agree that we should make an effort to elevate our thinking, expand our knowledge. We live in a world of wonderful new ideas and adventures and interesting people…all available to us, if we make the effort.???

  5. My Mantra/Philosophy of my life is: Try something new
    and you won’t grow old…..I use it everyday, and at 72, I’m still
    thriving. Thank you for your thoughtful post this Monday .
    Morning, A Good Way to start a new week & each day.

  6. Kolkwitzia amabilis ‘Pink Cloud’

    Such a lovely phot Shannon .
    The RHS website in the UK has it under this description, in case anyone wants to give it try !
    I’m not sure it’s exactly the same as the one in your photo , but it looks as though it might be. However, you may have a slightly different variety in the USA ?

  7. love this post! i know you’ve posted about learning and studying the french language before, but was curious about your personal program for this—how you go about it, as i’ve been working on this as well. thanks shannon!

    1. Kristine, Check out my French inspired posts in the Archives. I have a three part series on my steps and practice ideas for learning the language better. I did take a couple of courses at my local community college. ???❤️

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