There are a number of different ways to improve your brain fitness aside from playing games. The following is a collection of different ideas on how to improve and maintain your mind.
A recently published study concluded that the more your mind wanders, the less happy it is. That is, staying focused and present might go a long way to increasing your satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
The study was conducted in a novel way – using the iPhone. An application that people voluntarily downloaded to the iPhone randomly questioned participants about their current mental state – what they were thinking about, and how happy the felt. People who living in the present – attending to the task at hand or the environment around them – were significantly happier than those who were off in the world of daydreams.
Now, you may be thinking the same thing that went through my mind when reading this – that people who are unhappy with what they are doing are more likely to daydream, and so the results may indicate that daydreaming is a result of unhappiness rather than a cause of it. However, the researchers address that question in the study and seem to be convinced that the wandering mind is the source of the discontent rather than a product of it. Have a look yourself if you are interested in learning more.
In a way, it makes sense. There is a certain satisfaction or enjoyment that comes with being focused. And within the realm of wellness, spirituality and self-help, there is much emphasis on the power of being present, living in the now.
The brain is designed to be a learning machine. It has evolved over millions of years to digest all the information around it and synthesize it into behaviors and decisions that enhance our probability of survival and reproduction. For all the talk you hear about specific regions controlling particular aspects of your body or your cognition, the truth is that the brain is highly adaptable and can undergo considerable reorganization/reconfiguration when tasked to do so.
You need only consider a child to see how readily and eagerly the mind absorbs information; for the first 10-15 years of life we are rapidly trying to figure out the world around us and how we fit into it all. Everything around us during this time is exciting and new and we soak it all up like a sponge. Unfortunately, that process stops sometime soon thereafter for most people. In many cases, as we near adulthood, we choose a ‘career’ – or at least a more narrow path – and then focus most of our mental energy in that direction. We lose track of all the other activities/people/ideas out there to behold and consequently reduce the ways in which we use our minds.
Given the brain’s proclivity to learn, this process of narrowing our interests is probably doing us a great disservice. Granted, it may allow us to excel in a particular field, but it may also make us more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and even Alzheimers or other forms of dementia. Perhaps even more importantly, it increases the chance that our lives will become dull, routine, commonplace and otherwise boring. As soon as we forget that this world is a totally fascinating place, rife with opportunities to explore, grow, experience and the like, we have given up one of the fundamental aspects of being human. When we are no longer curious seekers of new ideas, new hobbies and new people, we are effectively resigning to a life of stasis. I am not suggesting that life needs to be teeming with stimulation – certainly there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the simple life has many merits – only that we should always keep learning and seeking out novelty to keep our minds young and our lives full of the richness that surrounds us.
You shouldn’t really need another reason to take a walk in the woods or dig in your garden – both exercise & being outside in nature have myriad benefits – but just in case, let me share some fascinating research. The results of a recent study suggest that the simple act of exposing yourself to common soil bacteria may actually improve you cognitive abilities. Apparently, the activity of the microorganism Mycobacterium vaccae stimulated growth of some neurons in the forebrain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety. So make sure you serve up a dose of dirt with your regiment of brain games!
Here’s the article: Want to get smarter? Eat Dirt
The brain thrives on novel stimuli. It loves to learn, to explore and discover. However, many of us lead lives of routine and pattern that limit how much new stuff our brains are exposed to. If this describes you, do yourself a favor and work to break these patterns and start seeking out new things. In general, new friends and new hobbies are probably the best way to go, but these require a considerable time commitment, so if you are unable to take these large steps you should start off with something smaller. Try this:
Pick an environment or object you are familiar with and regularly exposed to, whether it be your garden, the beach, the woods, your walk to work, or even just a painting in your bedroom. Inspect this environment carefully and try to notice some detail about it you have never seen before. In all likelihood, this will be easy, as our brains routinely filter out information they deem irrelevant. The next time you are taking that walk, working in your garden, or checking out your painting, try to find something else new, and continue with this process. Over time, you will begin to see the environment/object in ever greater detail, and with any luck, that tendency to look closer at things and be more aware will carry over into other aspects of your life.
This tip emphasizes a general trend that emerges in many of these brain fitness tips: don’t be lazy and complacent with your mind. Use it as it is meant to be used, and be sure to take in all the richness of the world around you. Step up to challenges instead of shying away from them, and let what your brain does best: learn, grow and adapt.
Diet of course can have a tremendous affect on your health, but did you also know that it can affect the functioning of your brain? Along those lines, there are a variety of different foods/nutrients that are thought to have either a positive or negative effect on your mental processes. One of the main foods believed to have a negative effect is sugar, principally refined sugars. Although you brain does need sugar – it runs by metabolizing glucose – it doesn’t need very much of it and ‘overdosing’ on sugar can be detrimental to your mood and the health of your brain (both in the short-term and the long-term; diabetes is associated with a considerably higher risk of dementia and alzheimers). Recent studies show that sugar may even fuel addiction and depression.
Especially if you are already diabetic. A 2001 study by the University of Virginia Health System concluded that blood glucose levels in excess of 270 mg/dl in type 1 diabetics impacted verbal fluency, the ability to do mental arithmetic and reaction times to multiple-choice questions. The level of impairment rose in conjunction with the rise of their blood glucose levels.
Here’s some more info on the dangers of refined sugar and how it impacts your brain:
Refined Sugar: The Sweetest Poison of Them All
The Harmful Effects of Sugar and Choosing Healthy Alternatives
Sugar Addiction and Brain Chemistry
146 Ways Sugar Can Ruin Your Health
If the following tip sounds more like preaching than advice, that’s because it is: lace up your shoes and go dancing. Not only is dancing great exercise (which increases blood flow to your brain), relaxing (reducing stress), and fun (improving mood), it also serves to exercise your balance, coordination skills and sense of timing/rhythm. It can also be a great vehicle for socializing (which, as discussed in a previous post, is one of the most important aspects of brain fitness), and a way to channel your artistic/creative abilities. You get all this from something that you can pretty much do anywhere, anytime, for free. In my personal experience, dancing is just about as good as it gets, and if there is one thing I would like to encourage others to do, it’s dance. There are so many different styles so you should be able to find something that works for you, regardless of your experience level or your musical tastes. Just do it, your mind and body will thank you.
And that doesn’t even consider the affects the music itself has on your brain, aside from the movement aspects:
A few interesting quotes I came across:
Researchers who followed nearly 500 people for 21 years found that ballroom dancing was the most protective physical activity. It reduced dementia risk by 76 percent.
A recent report from the Changing Age Partnership confirms that dancing may be a key to successful aging. Dr. Jonathan Skinner of Queens University Belfast recently presented research findings that strongly suggest regular dance sessions offer mental, physical and social benefits to seniors. These benefits seem to hold back the overall declines normally associated with aging: The seniors who dance seem to stay more engaged and motivated, have reduced aches and pains, combat the common sense of social isolation, even stimulate their immune systems in multiple ways.
And here’s a great article from the brain fitness experts at SharpBrains: Waltzing your way to physical and mental fitness
This is possibly the ultimate brain fitness tip. So few of us make the effort to explore meditation or to practice it regularly, yet it can have such a profound and positive impact on the brain. Thanks to new advances in neuro-imaging technologies, scientists are now able to observe the effects of meditation on the mind, and the results are staggering. Prolonged meditation has the capacity to physically transform the organization of your brain and can empower you to become more attentive & relaxed, among other things (like eliminating bad habits and negative thought patterns)
But don’t just take my word for it! Check out these links to learn more about the myriad benefits of meditation.
Meditation Sharpens the Mind
How Thinking Can Change the Brain
An Interview w/Richard Davidson
Clear Mind Meditation Techniques
Benefits of Meditation
Many of our higher cognitive functions have evolved to facilitate social interactions, so it should be no surprise that socializing is good for your brain. Various studies have shown the value of family, friendships and community in maintaining health, happiness and longevity.
Some of us already have enough of this in our lives and perhaps would benefit more from some down time to relax, meditate or otherwise work on ourselves. But for the rest of us, making some new friends or joining a group can be fun & challenging in addition to good exercise for our brains. Few things can stimulate our minds in so many different ways as other people.
For a little more information on the subject, check out these related posts:
Social Connections for Cognitive Fitness
The Social Cure
Looking for a group to join in your area? MeetUp.com is an excellent resource to find clubs or organizations to join – or to start one of your own. Craigslist.org is also a good option to find people to connect with. Likewise for Facebook.
If you are like most people, math is a class you take in high school & college only to be forgotten and ignored for the remainder of life. Sure, we all do arithmetic from time to time when working with money, but most other aspects of math are never again used once you leave school. This is understandable, but unfortunate.
I doubt many of you would think of picking up programming as a hobby, but you might want to give it some thought. I’m not sure there is anything else in my life that challenges my brain in so many different ways than writing code. Learning a language is great exercise of your memory and language abilities and then using your newly-developed skills gives your problem-solving skills and creativity a serious workout. Each application presents a variety of different problems to solve, using these strange yet logical languages. There are always new techniques to learn, and always ways to improve existing ones. Debugging – trying to diagnose and resolve errors – can be a tremendous challenge in its own right.
Don’t be intimidated by it either, it’s easy to learn the basics. Pick a language, learn some simple commands, and then set off making a simple application. You may be surprised to discover how fun & rewarding it is, even at the introductory level. And if you keep going with it, you’ll find this skill to be quite useful, and potentially even lucrative (if you get good at it).
If you’re interested, you might want to start with BASIC. Follow that link for free software complete with sample applications and tutorials.
If anyone actually gives this a shot, let me know!
For those of you who consider yourselves to be right-handed or left-handed, it might be in your best interest to abandon that notion and work to become ambidextrous. Perhaps you think that sounds crazy, but this is one I have personal experience with and I can tell you it’s definitely feasible. continue reading…
Did you know that thinking about doing something is almost as effective as actually doing it, when it comes to learning something? This may sound crazy, but it’s true. Studies have shown that participants who spent time thinking about playing the piano were nearly just as effective at learning how to do it as those who actually practiced. A study has shown that the mere act of imagining movement can help build strength in muscles. And we know from meditation that the brain can be profoundly affected by the thoughts that pass through it. So don’t overlook the value of your thoughts and imagination.
I was sitting at the table eating dinner when I endulged in a childhood habit of spinning a quarter on the table and trying to stop it mid-spin. The trick is you need to be very precise and steady with your movement and hit the perfect spot with the right pressure. The more you do it the better you get. continue reading…
Over the past year, I have put a lot of effort into learning to identify the different types of trees in the area. This is no small challenge, as some of them differ only in minute details, and there are numerous different factors that one must consider to properly make an identification. It occurred to me today on my walk that my brain has probably changed a bit as a result of this learning process. I’d be willing to bet that that I am way better at discriminating between shades of brown and gray than most people (because of spending a lot of time looking at bark) and also at remembering the structure of irregular shapes (because of all the time looking at leaves). In general, it seems this process has increased my awareness and attention to fine detail.
Think for a moment how amazing our capacity to aim is. To see a target, assess its position in space relative to you, and then move your arm at the right trajectory and velocity (taking into account the phyiscal properties of the object you are throwing, and the influence of gravity) in order to hit it, is no small feat. And as is the case with many such activities that require integration of multiple cognitive functions, aiming is probably a great exercise for your mind. continue reading…
I just came across a very interesting suggestion that I’d like to pass on to you. It comes from Michael Mezernich, one of the pioneers in neuroplasticity & founder of Posit Science, via the book The Brain That Changes Itself. Dr. Mezernich postulates that much of our decreased stability as we age comes from the fact that we wear shoes all the time. Perhaps that sounds crazy, but the logic behind it is quite sound. continue reading…
We rely heavily on our vision as it serves us well. Yet, deprived of this sense we can still achieve a great number of things, and it might serve you well to exercise these capabilities. Obviously, this is not typically practical, but on occasion you should try do something in the dark or with your eyes closed. Try this with tying your shoes, it becomes a slightly different task but gives your proprioception / spatial sense, along with your fine motor memory.