A quick share about my research on hobbies and the impact on brain health.

On the subject of hobbies

When you look at my after-work activities today (beyond the usual socializing and rest), you can find me doing one of the following:

  • making beer, cider, wine,
  • playing with IoT,
  • learning Elm / FE technologies,
  • playing tennis, doing CrossFit.

That’s just a bunch of hobbies I currently stick to. There’s a lot of them already in my past that I no longer pursue regularly.

Looking back at the graveyard of hobbies, I am reminded of these words by David Allen:

I’m David Allen, I got into this game in my own little consulting practice. I had 35 professions by the time I was 35. I added them up, how many things I’ve actually done for money. Then it’s either consultant or flake are your two options. So I decided to take the consulting route I think.

So which am I? It is healthy to switch hobbies often? Or does it stem from a limited attention span? Should I just pick one and stick with it?

Scientists say

Specifically, I was looking for an answer to a question:

“What is better for brain health (ie. preventing dementia): deep & narrow vs. shallow & wide interests.”

I chose dementia prevention because it seems to be the most reliable way to measure brain health and effectiveness. Another motivating factor is that dementia is probably the most harrowing health problem I can imagine.

Other measures of brain health, like ones used in various brain exercise and diet studies, tend to use laughable methodology in determining the measured effect (usually something prone to 100 different variables and quite tangential to actual day to day operation).

The best write-ups1 I’ve found don’t come close to answering this question. It seems that there are insufficient data to answer even a more basic question:

“Does cognitive training (a repeated and structured practice of tasks which pose an inherent problem or mental challenge) decrease the chance of dementia”.

If you want the TLDR of those findings (or rather the lack thereof) let me give you a quote:

This information will then need to inform wider community programs, and many more questions arise. For example, is starting a new cognitively demanding hobby as good as many hours of computer-based cognitive training? If so, are all activities equally effective or only some? How often and what intensity of engagement is required? Is group participation better than individual practice at home? Generic issues will also arise such as scalability, accessibility, economy, and accountability.

However, one paragraph further I found something that stopped my research dead.

In the meantime, the general public needs to be well informed about the links between complex mental activity and reduced dementia risk. Given the negligible potential for harm, it is sensible to encourage all individuals to increase their levels of complex, enjoyable, and engaging cognitive activity for optimal brain health, particularly after retirement.z

A bird in the hand

Why am I even researching what kind of hobbies would make the greatest difference in my mental health? I know myself well enough to know what I like most and what I’m most likely to do.

Barring some horrible health mishap, I know I will never really start running or yoga. Similarly, there’s no chance I will dive deep into studying the intricacies of dance history, even if it turns out people who do have 10% less chance of dementia.

I should stick to the activities that I know work for me: CrossFit, tennis and varying hobbies that catch my attention. They are complex, engaging and – above all – enjoyable to me. I will gladly do them with a smile on my face and won’t think of then as chores to be done, but rather the essence of life itself.