One snowy winter day in Vienna, Bonnie Pitman inhaled the breath that transformed her life. She had just completed negotiations to bring a collection of Egyptian treasures to the Dallas Museum of Art, of which she was the director. The exhibit, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” would open later that year, in the fall of 2008. Now as she waited at the airport to make her way home, she started to cough. By the time she reached Dallas, she thought she had the flu. By the end of spring, she could speak only a single word before falling into a coughing fit. A doctor confirmed the worst: she had some sort of unidentified respiratory virus, likely incurable.
A few years later, she’d become so sick that she stepped down from her position at the DMA, the premature end of a nearly forty-year career that included stints at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum. In search of a diagnosis that to this day remains elusive, she visited the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and National Jewish Health—a leading hospital for respiratory disorders, in Denver. Desperate for a way to look forward to each morning despite her debilitating illness, Pitman started a simple daily habit. On July 8, 2011, she resolved to do something new each day. Her hope: to make even her more painful days bearable, by doing something she had never done before—even if that something was as simple as, say, trying a new flavor of ice cream.
“I thought, honestly, I would do it a week or twenty-one days or something like that, but here we are,” Pitman says, more than ten years later. She can now speak without frequent coughing fits, thanks in part to an inhaler and a nebulizer, which deliver medicine directly to her lungs. Still, she pauses every now and then to cough into her palm. “It’s been a way for me to go to bed at night and not think about medications and pain, but to think about what I’m going to do the next day that’s going to give me joy.”
A decade later, she continues her daily practice, only now she works alongside neuroscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth, as its director of Art-Brain Innovations, and she teaches about the interplay of art and health at UT-Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical School. Research suggests that practices like her “Do Something New” initiative can make a legitimate difference to those enduring chronic illness. It’s become a matter of growing relevance in the last year, given that an estimated 50 to 80 percent of COVID patients suffer long-lingering effects.
When Pitman got sick, she began receiving gamma globulin infusions to boost her immune system. This required five hours at a clinic each month. To pass the time, she would search the internet for answers regarding the mysterious disease ravaging her lungs. She also came to notice intersections between her longtime work as an art curator and the health-care professions. For one, the keen observation necessary for interpreting a work of art seemed similar to skills that doctors need to diagnose patients.
Through her role at the DMA, Pitman had come to know several leaders of Dallas medical institutions. She proposed a class about art and medicine to the president of UT Southwestern, and by 2015, Pitman and Dr. Heather Goff, a professor of dermatology, were jointly teaching a course called “The Art of Examination.” They aimed to help medical students cultivate the visual and communication skills necessary for clinical diagnosis by learning how to observe and interpret works of art. Pitman later helped develop a national symposium about the art of examination at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and she has taught students and physicians at UT-Dallas and Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
All the while, she has maintained her “Do Something New” practice.
Her daily “new things” have run the gamut, from taking a cooking class taught by a chef who served the queen of England, to dancing under a full moon, to simply reading a book with her grandchildren. When choosing which novel experiences to have, she considers those that feel joyful and ignite her curiosity. She attempts to focus on each of these activities mindfully—with her full attention—and she documents each by taking photographs and writing about them, often sharing these ruminations on Instagram. She’s discovered that the practice not only distracts her from worry and pain, but increases her creativity, fosters resilience within her, and encourages compassion for herself and others. “Not everything has to be climbing a mountain or going to a new museum,” Pitman says. “Learning to appreciate the small things in life is equally important.”
All of this might seem like simplistic pop psychology, but when Sandra Chapman, director of the Center for BrainHealth, invited Pitman to give a talk about her practice in 2013, it immediately attracted the interest of the neuroscientists there, who wanted to learn more.
Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth seek to better understand how to strengthen the brain, increasing what’s called cognitive reserve, the brain’s buffer against neurodegeneration. That’s where work like Pitman’s matters.
“Novelty is a contributor to improving brain health,” says Dr. Geoff Ling, a neurologist at the center. “You don’t have to take a pill. You don’t need surgery. You don’t need any of that stuff. All you have to do is do something new.”
When you do something new, your brain lays down a neural network associated with that memory—possible because of the brain’s “plasticity,” its adaptive ability. This new neural pathway can forestall the disruption of nerves caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. As Ling puts it, “You’re staying ahead of the problem.” And the more attentively you focus on that novel experience, the stronger your brain will build that neural network.
Ian Robertson, another UT-Dallas BrainHealth neuroscientist, points out that novelty is also one of the strongest triggers for the brain’s creation of the chemical norepinephrine. Within healthy limits (too much can cause anxiety, too little can disrupt focus), norepinephrine not only helps create and repair neural pathways, it neutralizes some of the nasty proteins associated with neurodegeneration.
“As you get older, there’s an awful tendency to sink into familiar habits,” Robertson says. “And that’s very nice, it makes you feel good, it relieves your anxiety. But it’s not giving your brain spurts of brain-protecting norepinephrine. You can get that from novelty.”
Memories of wholly new experiences are often stronger than others as well. An experiment on mice performed in 2016 at UT Southwestern illustrated as much. Dr. Robert Greene found that when mice do something for the first time, a part of the brain stem called the locus coeruleus (where norepinephrine is produced), releases dopamine into the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. The dopamine biochemically strengthens the neurons responsible for recently created memories.
When it comes to the sort of benefit—relief from the pain of chronic illness—that Pitman says she gains from her “Do Something New” practice, it helps to understand how brain researchers distinguish the elements of pain. There’s the actual physical sensation, which doctors call nociception, and the subjective experience of pain, or suffering. To illustrate the difference, Ling offers the example of people sitting on a hard bench. At first, they feel fine. After a while, they get a bit more uncomfortable. Eventually the sitting becomes unbearable. The sensation remains the same—the feel of a hard bench. But over time the experience transforms into suffering. Exercises like Pitman’s that encourage the brain to concentrate on something other than the hard bench, something that’s new, interesting, or joyful—all components of her “Do Something New” practice—distract the brain so it’s less focused on that suffering.
“Pain will be there, that’s undeniable,” Ling says. “But the suffering aspect, that’s the part you can do something about.”
Because of brain plasticity, when someone experiences chronic pain in, say, a leg, the regions of the brain devoted to the perception and production of pain in that leg appear more activated compared with those of someone without chronic pain, explains Julie Fratantoni, another cognitive neuroscientist at UT-Dallas BrainHealth. If that person can refocus his or her attention elsewhere—such as mindfully doing something new that fosters joy—the brain will allot more of its energy toward strengthening networks associated with processing the new thing and away from the experience of leg pain. As Fratantoni puts it, “What you focus on grows.” The pain won’t disappear entirely, but it may become less all-consuming.
Fratantoni adds that practices like Pitman’s that encourage self-compassion can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates sleep, relaxation, and digestion. The brain controls all the body’s functions, so when you are heavily stressed, you won’t digest food well, which means your gut will not produce important neurotransmitters. That negatively impacts your mood, your ability to sustain relationships, your focus, and so forth. But when you engage in compassion for yourself and others, as Pitman’s practice encourages, Fratantoni says, you increase activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and decrease the brain’s stress responses.
“With all the different stresses that we’ve gone under, all the transitions, all the loss, the job loss, watching kids at home, all these things, by taking time to be compassionate, to care for others, to care for yourself, that’s going to help restore some balance,” she says.
When John Powers, a sculptor in New York, lost a thumb and finger and damaged other nerves and tendons in his hand while building fence posts last spring, his life as an artist changed in an instant. “It’s a very strange feeling to know that every move has to be done differently, that everything going forward is going to be different than it was before,” Powers says.
Rather than dwell on what he might have done to prevent the accident or how it altered his future as a sculptor—which he cannot change or control—he chose to focus his attention on being gentle with himself and celebrating each small victory instead. Shortly after the accident, he met Pitman, whose son is Powers’s friend.
Her systematic approach to doing something new every day reinforced his own intention to celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how small. “She’s an amazing personality,” he says. “Each time I approached a new thing and did it, it just became a moment of celebration.” So far, Powers has celebrated everything from the first time he buttoned a cuff, to the first time he drove a car, to the first time he went wake surfing.
“It’s staying in the moment, keeping it simple, really focusing on what I’m sure to anyone else seems like trivial victories but for me are real,” he says.
As of July 29, Pitman is on day 3,675 of doing new things. The practice has been especially meaningful to her lately, as she injured both legs and her hip in a fall last winter. Does she ever tire of it?
“Some days slip by,” she admits, “All of a sudden, I realize, ‘Oh! It’s 11:45, and I haven’t done something new.’” Her last-minute activities have included a pool race with her rubber ducks, finishing construction of a Lego pirate ship without using the directions, and, of course, eating a new flavor of ice cream (her most recent flavor: homemade vanilla straight out of a mason jar). Usually, she finds the practice joyful, replete with discoveries about herself, the world, and the neuroscience that is now a big part of her life.
“I wish these things didn’t happen to me,” she says. “But they do. So I just do the best I can to accept them and find ways to bring joy into my life that I never had thought of before. That’s why the practice is so important.”
Correction: The number of days that Pitman has practiced her “Doing Something New” routine has been updated.