Just last week, I was reading about an extraordinary man… Elliot Carter, considered by many to be America’s greatest living composer. He was being written about because he had celebrated his 100th birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Usually in such situations, the composer is honoured by attending a performance of their most seminal works, typically coming from the peak of their careers a long, long time ago. For Carter, many believe that his peak has yet to come.

The performance at Carnegie Hall was of a piece Carter wrote for piano and orchestra just last year at the age of 98. Since he hit 90, Carter has published more than 40 works, premiering his first opera in 1999, and producing 16 new works in just the past two years.

He’s still writing at the top of his form”, conductor James Levine was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article.

Some even believe history will regard Carter as one of the greatest composers that ever lived. Carter offers insight into how this may happen in the 2004 documentary A Labyrinth of Time when he says that once society becomes more complicated, “people will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. Then, they will like my music.” I love that…

The most fascinating thing is that despite his age, Elliot Carter is not done yet. According to contemporary composer John Link, he is currently working on a song cycle on Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, and as Carter was quoted as saying in an article in the Boston Globe, “I have a lot of pieces in the back of my head, so I’m very preoccupied with composing in my last year of my life.”

Why am I mentioning this today? Let me explain….

Keeping our brains in fantastic working order is obviously pretty vital for success in just about anything we take on, in fact I would even go as far as to say it is pretty vital in everything that we do, especially if we want to do it well.

I regularly take gingko biloba, essential fatty acids from fish oils and good quality vitamins as I read once that they helped blood flow to your brain and helped it grow and all sorts of things. However, our brains need stretching and exercising some times and as an integral part of my work, I like to show you individuals how to really make the most out of their brain, because it is awesome.

Knowing how to use your brain more fully and effectively is one way in which you can boost your brain power. But you can also grow your own brain power — quite literally: Slightly different to buying seeds and potting them and watering them, though not 100% different.

You know, while the number of brain cells we have actually declines from our mid-twenties on, research has demonstrated that the number of connections between brain-cells can continue to grow — provided the brain is exercised and given new material to deal with. The power of your brain, in other words, does not just relate to the number of brain cells you have: it relates to the use you make of them, and the way this stimulates the brain to grow new connections between cells.

When we research and model people who use their brains effectively, it shows that new challenges, new learning, and new connections are what keep the brain in good and fluid working order, what keeps it fit and firing wonderfully well, so that you have synapses popping in your head like electricity firing through a circuit.

It has been demonstrated relatively recently, for example, that people who keep mentally active into old age are less likely to develop diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Activity does not have to involve academic learning, though it might: doing puzzles, reading books and papers, listening to radio, learning or practising new skills are all ways in which you can continue to stimulate your brain and encourage the formation of new neural connections.

Yet, we still hear people say things like:

–    “I do not have a good memory.”
–    “That is too much for me to remember.”
–    “I have a memory like a sieve.”
–    “I am afraid my memory is failing now that I am getting older.”

The people that say these things are absolutely right!

Those that invest their belief in such statements, make them true! Why do that to yourself? 

Before he died a few years ago, my Granddad said something to me that really made me think. He and I were in his local village pub and we were joking about the fact that my Nana gave him a hard time for coming to the pub and ordered him not to drink too much, despite over 65 years of marriage. My Nana had been quite ill for a number of years and she does not go out much and I mentioned to my Granddad that I noticed her struggling for her words every now and then, or struggling to remember a name and he said that it was nothing to do with her age, they were both in their eighties, but rather it was that she has very little communication with others anymore. That was his opinion.

There are some very common misconceptions about memory and our brain function: that it is an ability that cannot be changed; that you only have a certain amount; that it relates to age, and declines as we get older.

Memory is not about volume and it is not about content, it is about processes. It is about something we do, not something we have: it is about remembering.

Remembering is dependent on the connections we make between things. Imagine you are constructing an index. If you have referred to a book, or a person, by only one attribute, you will have only one data point and hence only one way of accessing that information. If you have used a number of different data points, each capturing a different aspect, you will have more ways to access this information.

The point I wanted to make today is that there are people like Elliott Carter out there, writing symphonies when their age is in triple figures! He is not looking like he is on his last legs, he is thriving… Physically and psychologically, the stimulus he fires through his brain with all the complexities of his beautiful muic keeps him fresh and invigorated… Making him also very invigorating!

I love reading about this stuff… I hope you are continuing to stimulate your brain 🙂