Juggling has been shown to expand the size of the brain. A German study published in the journal, Nature, examined 24 people, half of whom were were randomly assigned to learn and practise juggling over a three month period. MRI scans of the brain were taken before and after they learnt to juggle. The scans* showed an increase in grey matter (which means an increase in brain cell volume) in two areas of the brain involved in visual and motor activity: the mid-temporal area and the posterior intra-parietal sulcus. The 12 people who served as ‘controls’ and had not been taught to juggle showed no changes in their brains over the three months.
We know that learning results in positive changes in brain cell activity and in increased connections between existing neurons. However, this study demonstrates that during a three month period of learning a new skill (and a relatively simple one at that) we can actually create more brain cells. Given that many diseases of the brain such as stroke, trauma and dementia result in loss of grey matter, the implications are very exciting in terms of being able to induce brain cell re-growth.
The other interesting finding was that three months after people stopped juggling, the enhanced brain regions decreased in size. The researchers postulated that three months of juggling was not enough to produce permanent changes, and that like a muscle, we need to continue to use the brain so we don’t lose it.
Juggling also has two more important brain-boosting effects: it forces us to focus our attention and it relieves stress. Narrowing our attention to an activity like juggling reduces our mental chatter and gives the brain an incumbent break from digital input.
*The scans involved a sophisticated analysis technique called “voxel-based morphology” to enable the researchers to investigate changes in brain cell bodies not just connective fibres.