Staying physically healthy is a primary concern for a lot of people these days, but we should also be concerned for our mental wellbeing. Just like you need to exercise your body, your brain needs a work out too. So ‘use it or lose it’ doesn’t only apply to your abdominal muscles. Unfortunately, with smart phones, smart homes and smart cars, we are perhaps forgetting how smart we can be. So take some time to see how you can give your brain what it deserves. This amazing part of you continues to expand and adapt to the stimuli it receives throughout your life, meaning the more you take care of your brain, the better the thinker you become. You probably already have a training regimen at the gym, so here’s one for your brain!
1. Find a good bookshop
Reading a book stimulates the imagination. Your brain automatically draws mental pictures when you read, setting your mind off to work. A good book can really get you carried away, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a couple at the same time. If you’re lucky enough to have a library close by, then you don’t have to worry about costs and you will be tempted to try a wide variety of books without risk.
2. Bring out the Wii
Video games have a bad reputation for making us stop using our brains, but there are some that will actually help you strengthen your mind as well as your eye-hand co-ordination. When researchers in Belgium did an MRI analysis of 150 teenage brains, they discovered those who played video games frequently had more brain cells in the left ventral striatum of their brain, where the interplay of emotions and behaviour are controlled. Developing this region means a better potential for learning. So go for something like Big Brain Academy from Wii, a series of brainteasers that test your mental acuity. They can also be a fun family activity.
3. Do something relaxing
Whatever you choose to do to relax, it will ultimately help you to be smarter in the long run. Meditation is exceptionally therapeutic as it gives a little time alone to unwind and centre your thoughts. When University of Oregon researchers taught a group of roughly 100 students a type of stress-busting meditation, they found that within just 14 days, study participants showed improved neural signalling within the brain. After a month they found enhanced connections between brain cells. These are two of the primary factors responsible for better learning.
4. Get a good night’s sleep
A lack of sleep can get in the way of your ability to assimilate new information, so your brain needs rest to give its best performance. Aren’t things always clearer, brighter and fresher after eight full hours of slumber? When German researchers at the University of Luebeck gave a group of men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 a series of complex maths problems to solve, they found the well-rested were three times more likely to solve the equations than those who weren't getting enough sleep.
5. Add exercise to your agenda
If you want a better brain, start moving! Cardiovascular exercise improves blood flow to the brain, which improves the way it functions and keeps the tissues in your brain every bit as young and active as those throughout the rest of your body. Actually, regular physical activity seems to help slow or even reverse the brain's physical decay over time. Through studies on mice, scientists at the University of Illinois found that regardless of whether or not the mice ate well or were kept stimulated, the one thing that was necessary to improve their memory and performance in cognitive tests was a running wheel. Mice who ran were smarter in virtually every test, compared with mice that didn't. What’s more, another study found that physical exercise actually helped to increase the volume of the brain, a transformation that was visible in just a few weeks.
6. Always think positive
As well as being good for your overall wellbeing, believing in yourself can play a crucial role in how well your brain performs in different situations. Encourage yourself because positive thinking increases the brain’s effectiveness and helps to avoid things like depression. Find positive, encouraging people to hang around with, read material that perks you up and basically do whatever you need to so that you feel good about yourself. During a study conducted at Columbia and Stanford universities, researchers found that teenagers who had the most self-confidence—including believing they could successfully develop their maths skills—actually had the most success doing so, consistently doing better than their peers and improving their test scores throughout the course of the two-year study.
7. Remember learning lasts forever
We can never learn enough about the world around us, so don’t stop being curious. Always explore new experiences, skills, and knowledge. Think of something that you’ve always wanted to learn and go for it. Whether it’s speaking a foreign language, painting or fashion design, whenever you're learning one thing, your brain is becoming better at learning everything. When you leave your comfort zone and do something new, your brain creates new neurons. When researchers at Montreal’s McGill University enrolled a group of 30 men and women in tango lessons and tested their cognitive functions regularly, they found that after 10 weeks of classes, just learning a new dance had helped them score better on memory tests and get better at multitasking.
8. Break your habits
Drive a new way to work, try writing with your less dominant hand or do a puzzle instead of playing Monopoly. Get rid of the routine once in a while and mix things up a little. This benefits your brain because it requires you to think more since your autopilot has been switched off. Challenge your brain by doing things differently and it will respond. This is a great way to get your mental juices flowing.
9. Give the TV a break
A study from Iowa State University found that students who watched more than two hours of TV a day were up to twice as likely to be diagnosed with some form of attention disorder, such as ADHD, due to the amount of quick stimuli the brain is typically bombarded with while watching TV. If you want peak mental performance turn it off because the more you watch, the less you know, according to another study. Scientists analysed questionnaires from nearly 4,000 people, looking at not just their overall intelligence level but also their personal data, such as the amount of TV the respondents watched each day. Not surprisingly, those who watched TV or Internet-based broadcasts the most (four hours or more a day) also had the lowest mental-acuity scores.
10. Practise your maths skills
When you have a maths problem, do it in your head instead of using the calculator. With so many gadgets around us lots of us have become mentally lazy and are loosing our ability to work things out for ourselves. Working with and memorising numbers is a great way to get your brain back in shape. So bringing out the Sudoku may pay off big dividends later on!
11. Stop using your GPS
Using your brain to figure out how to get somewhere is great mental exercise. You have to use your brain’s ability to determine spatial relationships to effectively read a map and navigate a city. Travelling in an unfamiliar area is even better! A famous study with London cab drivers showed that certain areas of their brains were more developed compared to the average citizen. This was due to their need to learn how to navigate the maze of downtown streets.
12. Remember oldies are goldies
Get out those old picture albums and start having a laugh at your hairstyle back then. And while you wonder how you let your eyebrows stay so thick for so long, you will taps into your brain’s memory banks. Pictures will help you recall things that you thought you forgot, so go ahead and challenge your memory to see how much you can remember. Other ways to stimulate your memory like old letters or home movies are great too.
13. Let the music play on
Learning to play a musical instrument is a great way to super-charge your brain. To make melodies, different parts of your brain have to work together. If you already play an instrument, then learn a new piece or sign up for violin lessons. Music is a great workout for the mind and several studies show that mastering a musical instrument changes the brain’s structure and rewires your cells to think faster and more accurately. Even just listening to a good song expands your potential for learning. A classic UC Irvine study conducted in the 1990s found undergrads’ IQs rocketed temporarily after listening to Mozart.
14. Memorise a ditty
Many of us have lots of old songs stored in our heads, but why not expand your memory by learning a few new tunes? It may sound like a waste of time but it’s incredibly useful. At first it can take a while but if you keep trying, you will find it gets easier because you are getting your brain back in shape. Think of it like the warm-up you have before that Zumba class. The digital age means we have come to rely on our phones and computers but in order to remember things we need to keep maintaining that skill. So try it with other things as well like a cell phone number, a new vocabulary word or a favourite quote and try quizzing yourself every few hours to see how well you're remembering it.
15. Enlarge your social circle
Interacting with people challenges your memory and forces your brain to stay quick and develop. What’s more, don’t think twice about adding some more virtual friends since they can also be helping your brain work out. Psychologists at University College London analysed brain scans from 125 college students and then looked at their Facebook accounts. They found the students with the most friends also had significantly larger brains, especially in areas associated with memory and emotional response.