How to give your brain a workout

This article originally appeared on Express.co.uk

How to give your brain a workout

STRETCHING our mental muscle is a great way to boost how well we think, learn and remember.

Better still, it doesn’t require us to don the Lycra and pay expensive gym fees.Challenging your brain on a daily basis is all about driving this vital organ’s natural plasticity to create and strengthen synaptic connections between your neurons or brain cells. We achieve our cognitive peak at the lofty age of 24 which means it’s never too early to get into the brain gym.

Just as we know flossing keeps our teeth and gums healthy, a regular mental stretch helps prevent brain decay. So what do we need for a good mental stretch?The only equipment required is your brain, with an open mind that is curious and willing to put in the time and effort required to achieve the desired results.

Challenging your brain on a daily basis is all about driving this vital organ’s natural plasticity to create and strengthen synaptic connections between your neurons or brain cells.

After all, this is a neurobiological process which can’t be hurried. Any activity you choose to give your brain a mental stretch needs to offer these three key components:

1. Novelty

Your brain loves something new or different to explore and become good at.

The more difficult the challenge, the better because the extra effort required drives your brain’s plasticity harder. That’s why choosing something that you don’t expect to necessarily be very good at is a great place to start.

Maybe you were told as a child that you were no good at science or art and you believed it. Perhaps those subjects weren’t the ones you excelled at but if you are willing to have a go, why not look to see if that inner brain scientist or van Gogh has just been waiting for the opportunity to develop.

This is not about being the best, it’s just a way to move out of our comfort zone of familiarity to lay down new skill sets and create new habits and learning experiences.

If you fancy giving your brain a challenge, opt for a book of a different genre

2. Variety 

Just as you wouldn’t go to the gym and only use one piece of equipment, there is no point in doing the same type of crossword day in, day out. Your brain loves to have a wide variety of mental exercises to practise on. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life and the more we expose our minds to new ideas and thoughts, the more we broaden our ability to learn.

3. Continuing challenge 

Mastery doesn’t stop at the first floor. Being able to say five words in Spanish or to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the piano is a great accomplishment but moving to the next level is needed to continue the mental stretch. Whilst online brain-training games are rapidly increasing in popularity, debate remains as to their real usefulness in increasing our mental flexibility and prowess. If you enjoy playing them, that’s fine, however low-tech brain training works just as well, if not better, because it often includes the added benefit of social interaction which motivates us to keep trying and keeps us accountable too.

Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your time at the brain gym:

Take one small step at a time
  • You may have always wanted to learn Italian, dance the salsa and do a Phd – just don’t start them all at the same time. Avoid risking brain overload, which can lead to acute brain strain and early abandonment of all your projects, by choosing your first new activity and get going on learning and practising that, before adding in a second or third hobby.
  • Get going. If you’ve always wanted to paint, fancied playing the saxophone or learning to speak Mandarin, now is the time to sign up for that class.

Make it a daily habit 

Schedule a daily appointment with yourself to move away from the status quo and into your new habit of mind expansion and curiosity.

Here are some such suggestions for activities you could try:

  • Have a go at a cryptic crossword – the clues can appear daunting at first but learning how to crack them is all about technique.
  • Learn three new words and their meaning.
  • Choose to read a book in a different genre. If you like science fiction, why not try an autobiography? If you’re into crime thrillers, how about a book on photography?
  • Learn and recite a poem.

Ditch the digital props

Whilst modern technology, such as smartphones and tablets, makes finding our way around our world so much easier, choosing to use your brain instead can stop it from getting rusty. Try these:

  • The next time you are in a restaurant and the bill arrives, rather than reaching for the calculator on your smartphone, do the mental maths to split the bill between you and your friends.
  • When you go to the supermarket, ditch the shopping list and challenge your brain to remember all the items you need to buy.
  • When you next visit a friend in a different town, navigate using your  inner compass and local landmarks rather than your satnav to help you find your way.

Chase up old flames

  • You may not have ridden a pushbike for a decade (or three) but your brain will still remember how it’s done. It’s time to unearth that forgotten skill and re-establish those brainy connections.
  • Pick a song from your past and try to recall the artist, the words and the year it was released.
  • Still got that clarinet tucked away in the cupboard? You may not have played it for a while but why not rediscover your talent and try to take it to the next level? The more we use our brains, the better they get. Adding in a daily mental stretch is a great way to achieve better brain health and better thinking.

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