Brain Exercises

Dec 18, 2008 by

Brain ExercisesWhen we talk about brain exercises, we’re using a metaphor that’s not completely accurate. Unlike muscles, the brain cannot be “enlarged” through mental exercises. In some ways, the brain we have is the brain we will live with for our entire lives. However, brain exercises can certainly still aid us in making better, more efficient use of what we’ve been given.

If we use our brains like a muscle, studies have shown over and over that we can keep our brains “young” for many more years than sedentary brains— in this sense, using your brain is no different than exercising to maintain a healthy body. However, with brain exercises, instead of building muscle fibers and strengthening connective tissue, you’re helping your neurons forge new connections and strengthen already established neural pathways.

The concept of “brain fitness” grew out of the field of neuropsychology. In this system, exercises are designed to tap into the brain’s capacity for “neuroplasticity” to maintain brain functions; think of it as “stretching” the brain or keeping it flexible. Also critical in brain fitness is the idea of neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons. For decades, neurologists thought that we develop all the neurons we’ll ever have in our first few years of life, and that adult brains were incapable of growing new neurons. While this seems to be true for certain areas of the brain such as the motor cortex, research in the late 1970s and early ‘80s discovered that mammalian brains can in fact produce new neurons in the regions of the hippocampus and the dentate gyrus, which may have roles in regulating learned responses to stimuli. Neuroscientists are now speculating that neuronal growth in these areas might increase memory capacity, reduce interference between memories (for easier recall), and possibly add new ancillary information about time to the memories.

The link between neurogenesis and learning is tantalizing but far from conclusive, though learning does seem to be crucially connected to the survival of neurons and the development of new connections between them. On the other hand, the brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity has been well established. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its physiology in response to changes in the body, in neural processes, or in the environment. Such changes can be subtle and enacted at the cellular level: for instance, when you learn a new skill like riding a bike, that creates a new series of connections between the neurons in your cerebellum (called a neural pathway), and repeating the learned action cements these changes. Alternatively, these changes can be vast, remapping large parts of the cortex after a brain injury or the loss of a main sense like vision. There are even cases of blind people who’ve learned to navigate by the echoes that “ping” off objects in their environment, utilizing a kind of human echolocation!

You may be wondering which brain exercises best take advantage of your brain’s powers of learning and development. Many cognitive abilities diminish over time unless they’re “exercised” regularly. It’s worth finding some useful brain exercises that can develop faculties such as attention span, stress and emotional management, memory, visual/spatial processing, auditory and language processing, motor coordination, and executive chores like planning and problem solving. Stick with it and you can maintain your cognitive fitness well into your twilight years!

Today there are dozens of products that claim to give your brain a workout, from flashcards to expensive computer and video game software. Unfortunately, some of these products skimp on the fitness side of the coin to focus on entertainment value. Consider, for instance, the Baby Einstein series of DVDs, which have been clinically shown to actually slow infant brain development, the exact opposite of what they’re marketed to do. A 2008 study discovered that children who spent a couple hours per day watching the Baby Einstein DVDs exhibited a 10% time delay in language development, and learned between 6-8 fewer new words per day than babies who watched less or no TV. The developmental delay stemmed not from the video materials themselves, but from the increased time the young subjects spent watching TV instead of interacting with their parents. Face to face interaction, including talking to and around children and reading to them, is still the best way for young kids to learn language.

Therein lies the rub of brain exercises: an active brain is a learning brain; just like with physical exercise, you have to put the work in to reap the benefits of brain exercises. One of the most effective means of exercising your brain is simply reading, as you are doing now. Reading, especially reading a variety of material, exposes you to new vocabulary, ideas and ways of using language that challenge your brain to further develop its linguistic capabilities. And an ability to more precisely express your thoughts in language leads directly to clearer, more articulate thoughts! In fact, any kind of activity that requires concentration of some sort can bring astonishingly tangible results. The old standard, crossword puzzles, can be one of the most effective and simple ways to get your daily dose of brain exercises, as can word-based games like Scrabble.

Furthermore, games of strategy like chess, checkers or even poker are also great brain exercises. Games make you plan several moves ahead, which exercises your prospective, or “forward-thinking” memory: whether you’re planning an offensive maneuver in chess, or angling to buy up a particular string of properties in Monopoly, you must learn how to plan ahead to win. Playing with others also hones your social and emotional intelligence: you must guess from their visual cues which move your opponent is going to make next in order to respond effectively.

Recent research has shown that, like selected dietary supplements, disciplined brain exercise can improve brain memory and the speed and quality of brain operations. Together, both these options not only help prevent age-related decline, but also help guard against the onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other degenerative cognitive diseases.

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