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When failure means success


When failure means success

There comes a time when it is a good idea to set yourself up for failure. KAILAS ROBERTS explains the efficiency of the brain means processes become automated, but it needs to be challenged for optimal cognitive exercise.

When we are young, we fail at everything. Of course, everything is novel and unfamiliar and this is hardly surprising.

We must learn what we later consider the basics: to walk, talk and control our basic bodily functions so that we are not left in awkward social situations.

It is no surprise that this period – early childhood in particular – is associated with a rate of brain growth that will never occur again throughout our lives.

In fact, it has been estimated that your brain grows to 90 per cent of its adult size by the time you are five. It then continues to grow more slowly and is the largest it will ever be when you are in early adolescence.

From then on, your brain starts to shrink. This is initially a necessary and beneficial process.

A process of rewiring (“pruning”) takes place, in which obsolete synapses – the connections between nerve cells – are removed.

This removal and simplification of circuitry makes the brain much more efficient, leading to you having peak cognitive powers in early adulthood, although different cognitive functions peak at different times.

Later in life, the shrinkage of the brain does not confer the same benefit.

Normal ageing is associated with reduced brain size – the volume of the brain is thought to decline by about 5 per cent each decade once you reach 40, the rate further accelerating beyond the age of 70.

This may partly explain some of the classic cognitive problems that occur as we get older – mild memory problems, slowed thinking and tip of the tongue moments.

The shrinkage of the brain occurs because of several factors, and if severe can lead to dementia.

One of the more hopeful findings about brain volume and function, however, is that you can positively influence it, and this may protect you against the damage that results in this condition.

I have written before about the power of physical exercise – which we know can increase the size of the hippocampi, structures critical in the process of memory formation.

Another brain booster is cognitive exercise, that is, giving your brain a good workout rather than – well, ideally in addition to – your body.

This is an ongoing challenge though, as the brain is very efficient and if you do the same thing often enough, the whole process becomes automated. You don’t even have to think about what you’re doing.

Consider driving or, if you are musician, playing an instrument. Though this is a nod to the power of the brain, it does not necessarily help it in the long term as after a while you are no longer engaging in optimal cognitive exercise.

So, what’s the answer? Well, ideally, you should be regularly failing at things.

This failure shows that you are a long way from the efficient automation of what you are doing.

Whatever activity you are failing must be very cognitively effortful – and this is a great thing for your brain as it is stretching its capacity. Just like physical exercise, the more you push yourself, the more benefit you are likely to get (to a certain extent in any case; there may be a limit).

And the best way to fail? Try something new. Novelty is a key component of activities that are good for brain health.

Things that involve multiple cognitive skills are especially helpful – dancing for instance involves movement, coordination, planning and social skills among others. Once you have got to a point when it is no longer hard then you should think about adding in something else new.

Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit or

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