When it comes to keeping your body’s muscles fit, you often hear the expression “use it or lose it.”
Yet most people don’t know that your body’s controlling organ – your brain – is similar to a muscle, too. In fact, keeping your brain “fit” with plenty of mental stimulation is a great way to support your healthy cognition, mental function and memory throughout your life.
Isn’t that exciting?
It’s Brain Awareness Week through March 22. What better way to celebrate your brain than to begin exercising it with the following 12 brain-strengthening ideas from clinical neuroscientist, board-certified psychiatrist and brain imaging expert, Daniel Amen, MD?
It is just as important to exercise your brain, as it is to exercise your body. It can be fun, too!
Dr. Amen’s 12 Ways to Strengthen Your Brain
1. Dedicate yourself to new learning.
Put 15 minutes in your day to learn something new. Einstein said that if anyone spends 15 minutes a day learning something new, in a year he or she will be an expert! Learn by taking a class. Try square-dancing, chess, tai chi, yoga, or sculpture. Parents, work with modeling clay or Playdough with your kids. It helps develop agility and hand-brain coordination!
2. Cross train at work.
Learn someone else’s job. Maybe even switch jobs for several weeks. This benefits the business and employees alike, as both workers will develop new skills and better brain function.
3. Improve your skills at things you already do.
Some repetitive mental stimulation is okay as long as you look to expand your base skills and knowledge. Common activities such as gardening, sewing, playing bridge, reading, painting, and doing crossword puzzles have value, but push yourself to do different gardening techniques, more complex sewing patterns, play bridge against more talented players to increase your skill, read new authors on varied subjects, learn a new painting technique, and work harder crossword puzzles. Pushing your brain to new heights helps to keep it healthy and strong.
4. Limit television for kids and adults.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics it was reported that for every hour a day children watch TV there is a 10% increased chance of them being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). This means if the child watches five hours a day they have a 50% increased chance of being diagnosed with ADD! Watching TV is usually a “no brain” activity. To be fair, most studies did not specifiy if watching programs that teach you something had the same effect as situation comedies, reality shows or sports. I suspect that no-brain TV shows are the primary problem.
5. Limit video games.
Action video games have been studied using brain imaging techniques that look at blood flow and activity patterns. Video games have been found to work in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, one of the pleasure centers in the brain. In fact, this is the same part of the brain that lights up when researchers inject a person with cocaine! My experience with patients and one of my own children is that they tend to get hooked on the games and play so much that it can deteriorate their school work, work and social time – a bit like a drug. Some children and adults actually do get hooked on them.
6. Join a reading group that keeps you accountable to new learning.
Almost any mental activity you enjoy can be used to protect your brain. The essential requirement is that it activates several different brain areas, one of which should be the hippocampus (in the temporal lobes), which stores new information for retrieval later on. By recalling information (using your hippocampus), you are protecting your brain’s memory centers. In essence, as long as you learn something new and work to recall it later for discussions, you are protecting short-term memory. Reading stimulates a wide variety of brain areas that process, understand, and analyze what you read, and then store it for later recall if you decide it’s worth remembering. The neurons in these activated brain areas are stimulated with specific patterns of information.
7. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
The brain does not interpret what you feed into it; it simply translates it. When you are learning to play the piano, the brain doesn’t care if you are becoming a great piano player or a terrible piano player. Consequently, if you repeat imperfect fingering, you will become very good at playing imperfectly! Teaching someone to do something well at the start prevents them from developing bad habits, which get solidified in the brain and are subsequently hard to retrain. Effective initial training in the workplace and in school is essential to developing effective, happy employees and students. We do not just train people, we train brains!
8. Break the routine of your life to stimulate new parts of your brain.
Do the opposite of what feels natural to activate the other side of your brain and gain access to both hemispheres. Write with your other hand, shoot basketballs with both hands, hit baseballs left handed (if you are right handed), play table tennis left handed, shoot a rifle sighting with your other eye, use the mouse with your other hand – make your brain feel uncomfortable. In essence, break the patterned routine in your life to challenge your brain to make new neuronal connections. Here are some more ideas:
- Make love in a different way.
- Try a sport you’ve never tried before.
- Take a class in a subject you know nothing about.
- Learn new cooking recipes.
- Do some volunteer work – see how good you’ll feel when you help others.
- Try a different shampoo/soap/shaving cream/ razor/ tooth/ paste/perfume/cologne.
- Go to church, or a different church.
- Go to an opera or symphony.
- Join a self-development group.
- Spend time reading the dictionary or a reference book. Learn a new word each day!
- Take time out each day to strengthen a special relationship — spouse, lover, child, or friend.
- Make a new friend–call up someone and ask him or her to do something with you.
- Contact an old friend you haven’t talked to in awhile.
- Submit a new idea at work; maybe even one you’ve thought about for awhile but were too embarrassed to mention because you thought no one would be interested in it.
- Forgive someone you hold a grudge against…this is a new activity for many people.
9. Compare how similar things work.
Evaluating similar items – how different pitchers throw a curve ball, the many ways painters can paint ocean scenes, the varying spices in meals – gives your brain a sensory workout. Looking at similarities and differences helps the brain’s ability to think abstractly and challenges our frontal lobes. Learning to see, hear, feel or taste subtle changes will enhance your sensory ability and stimulate brain growth.
10. Visit new and different places.
Traveling to new and interesting places helps the brain by exposing it to new experiences, scents, sights, and people. Using maps stimulates the brain in new and different ways and also exercises our parietal lobes responsible for visual-spatial guidance.
11. Cultivate smart friends.
People are contagious. You become like the people with whom you spend time. Work on developing friendships with new, interesting people. You can trade ideas, get new perspectives, and generally stretch your mind if surrounded by fascinating folks. In playing any game, if you want to be better you have to play with people who are better than you, to push you to your limit. Same principle holds true in pushing your brain to new heights. Spend time with people who challenge you!
12. Treat learning problems to help kids and adults stay in school.
Numerous studies show that better-educated people have less risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Millions of children, teens and adults suffer from ADD and learning problems that cause them to struggle in school or with learning despite having normal or even high intelligence. Recognizing these problems and getting them the help they need is essential to making “lifelong learning” a reality.
Mental exercise is as important as diet and physical exercise for keeping both your body and brain strong.
Here’s to keeping your brain fit!
Christakis DA, et al. Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics. 2004 Apr;113(4):708-13.