Keeping Your Brain Active: 10 Tips For Improving Your Brain

The other day I was listening to an interview on National Public Radio with Dean Oshler who has just written a book called From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords. During the interview I was surprised to hear Mr. Oshler challenge the widely held belief that regularly doing crossword puzzles is good for your brain fitness and can help stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Oshler’s problem with crossword solving is twofold: first, he believes the clinical data showing an advantage for puzzlers is both weak and only observational (“[The researcher] never said that there was a cause-and-effect relationship. He said there was a correlation. Maybe it just so happens that people who are mentally fit have a tendency to want to do crosswords in the first place”); second, we need variety in our mental exercise (“[Crosswords are] kind of the same activity over and over again. But the Alzheimer’s research shows that really what matters is novelty. … Constantly exposing yourself to something new. That is much more likely, I think, to keep you sharp in the long run.”)

And so I read with interest reports of a new study soon to be published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest entitled “Prospects for Improving Cognition Throughout the Life Course.” As summarized by this news report, the study determined that “[T]o stave off the mental decline associated with old age, engage in intellectually challenging activities, maintain a positive outlook and keep up your social life. In fact, “How people spend their lives does really have an impact on how they age cognitively,” said study co-author Robert S. Wilson, a professor of neurological and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The observational studies suggest people who are more intellectually active, socially integrated, physically active and who are relatively free from negative emotions like depression and anxiety all seem to be associated with aging better cognitively.”

I don’t think Oshler and Wilson are that far apart actually. Oshler is just emphasizing variety in mental exercise. He went on to say that perhaps one should take up something like crosswords for a year or so and then do something completely different like learning a foreign language. His concern is to avoid falling into a mental rut; always doing the same type of crossword puzzles edited by the same person, over and over again. New and varied mental challenges are key in his opinion.

That’s where another article I recently read comes into play. The tips below appeared on a blog called, Open Forum and concerned the work of Dr. Richard Restak clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Restak has written a book called Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. Here are Restak’s ten tips for improving your brain as given to blogger Guy Kawasaki and published by him on Open Forum:

“1.      Take up video-gaming. Action video games improve eye-hand coordination, improve spatial visualization skills, and increase the number of things that you can visually attend to simultaneously.

2.      Strengthen your memory. Memory is our most vital mental faculty. Strengthening memory is an important component in lessening the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

3.      Learn a new word every day. Learning new words not only enriches one’s understanding of the world, but also enhances the brain’s language centers and the prefrontal lobes where judgement and executive function are mediated.

4.      Engage in spelling exercises. Spelling forces you to mentally “see” the word prior to speaking it or writing it down. This exercises several language-related brain areas and circuits.

5.      Monitor your moods, fantasies, and self-talk. If you find yourself immersed in upsetting or stressful scenarios, change your brain activity by switching to something that doesn’t involve just your own concerns.

6.      Work off stress with increased physical activity. A healthy brain requires good general health. You can decrease the harmful effects of stress on general health by exercising daily, but you should choose an exercise that appeals to you and that won’t be considered a tiresome chore. Even just walking is fine. Walking four miles per week cuts down on the chances of later developing dementia by fifty percent.

7.      Take a twenty-minute nap every afternoon that you can manage it. A daytime nap will produce nearly as much skill-memory enhancement as a whole night of sleep. So after you have taken a class or engaged in some other learning situation in the morning, consolidate that information by napping for a brief time in the afternoon after lunch when you’re most likely to feel tired and fall asleep easier.

8.      Solve puzzles. Different parts of the brain will be exercised depending on what kind of puzzle you choose. Crossword puzzles challenge the language and memory areas while jigsaw puzzles provide exercise for the parietal lobes. When you get proficient do the crossword puzzles in your mind without writing anything down and do the jigsaw puzzles with the picture side turned over so that you’re working with shape and form alone.

9.      Work with your hands. Few people other than musicians and surgeons are skilled in fine finger control. Whenever you perform an activity requiring finger dexterity you enhance your brain. Knitting, model-ship or model-train building are fine-taking up a musical instrument is even better.

10.  Pay more attention to your sensory experiences. One of the most common causes of forgetting and poor memory relates to failures to register what is going on during the original experience. Practice sharpening your senses by identifying by name all of the herbs and essences you encounter in everything you eat. Challenges are as readily available as the nearest garden, spice-rack, and wine-tasting group.”

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