Train Your Brain
Give your gray matter a much-needed cognitive workout.
When its not actively engaged, your brain is aging. If you are sitting around doing nothing, your long and short term memory are declining, complex spacial processing is tanking, and cognitive skills are gathering cobwebs. Bet you won’t think about watching The Real Housewives of Anywhere ever the same again.
“The idea is that if you continuously use your mind instead of sitting on the couch and mindlessly watching TV or doing nothing, if you use your mind in a repetitive fashion, you strengthen the muscle—just like if you go to the gym and lift a weight over and over,” says Fadel Zeidan, PhD, research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.
Zeidan says there is a wide range of things we can do to stabilize our attention, regulate our emotions, improve complex spacial and visual processing and memory with higher-order–type mental training. This is where you perform a cognitive task while either performing another at the same time in parallel, or hold some information while you perform that cognitive task. For instance, remember these words in sequence: white, bear, orange. Next, recite the alphabet backwards. After batteries of tests, you’re asked to recall those words.
Different tasks like these transcend your mind to improve your brain. “We also know that some ancient techniques like mindfulness meditation can improve cognition and working memory,” says Zeidan.
Work at Harvard shows that training in mindfulness meditation can increase the thickness of the cortex brain matter. Over time as we age, cortical thinning occurs—our brains get thinner—and this thinning may be correlated to a decline in cognitive performance and attention. Researchers suspect training in this focus-on-breath meditation technique can offset cortical thinning.
Work that Mind Muscle
While scientists still say crossword puzzles and Sudoku are still excellent ways to keep your mind sharp, now we live in a tech era where we can see exactly what brain skills are weakening and target them specifically. That’s where brain apps like Lumosity and others come into play.
“They won’t necessarily make you smarter or more intelligent, but they will likely lead you to perform with better speed, memory, and attention in your cognitive functions,” says Zeidan.
“People are living longer. Life expectancy in the US is around eighty, but brain performance peaks in our early forties. As a nation, we are slowly becoming more consciously aware of the fact that living life to its fullest means making sure that our brain span keeps pace with our lifespan,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Research from the Center for BrainHealth indicates that complex cognitive training significantly improves cognitive brain health. One BrainHealth study demonstrated that twelve hours of directed brain training can change the brain on all levels: altering brain function, increasing blood flow, enhancing information communication across key brain regions, and expanding structural connections related to new learning.
“When I was in graduate school, we were taught that the brain you’re born with is the brain you have for the rest of your life, once you kill brain cells, that’s it,” says Zeidan. “And now we know that is not so true. Our brain constantly changes and it changes as a reflection of our behavior or what we put our mind to.”
If you’re doing crossword puzzles, training the mind by reading or playing brain games, or having high-level conversations with friends, what you are actually doing is training your mind on setting up a buffer to fend off the age-related declines of the brain. What’s more, Chapman says building cognitive reserves throughout life can stave off dementia.
Curls for the Brain
“You can’t become a great athlete just doing curls,” says Eric Braverman, PhD, assistant professor of Integrative Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College and assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “No one becomes a great athlete just running. They have to develop certain skill sets.” Brain health is dependent on lifestyle factors such as getting enough sleep, eating well, meditating or quieting the mind, playing brain games, reading, and learning new things like taking up a language or a computer coding class—it’s totally holistic.
The trick to making learning something new meaningful to your brain health is following your passion. You’re better off challenging yourself to master new aspects of a favorite hobby or socializing with others to gain new perspectives on a favorite interest, recommends Chapman.
“There’s actually a movement called environmental neuroscience where they can see people’s brains get better and improve on cognitive tests when they go out in the woods for three, five, or ten days,” says Zeidan. Just being embedded in nature can improve cognition and physical health. Science doesn’t yet understand why but the theory is if we put somebody in the woods for a couple days we get into our natural setting and it’s like pushing a reset button. We get centered again. Not unlike your vacation.
So rather than focus on one aspect of working out your brain, embody a host of lifestyle dynamics like a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, meditation, time in nature, brain stimulating challenges, and constantly learning things you’re passionate about.
Now, recall those three words mentioned earlier.
Give your mind a workout with these three apps.
Like a gym for your brain, Lumosity provides the tools and technology for users to challenge their core cognitive abilities like memory and attention. Take some basic tests to establish a brain baseline then figure out what you want to focus on: memory, concentration, speed, etc. Next, design a play plan with common neuropsychological and cognitive games like memory match and familiar faces—tasks that workout the brain. Finally, check how you stack up against others your age.
Available online at lumosity.com, iTunes and Google Play.
Originally designed for doctors that specialize in Functional Neurology, Focus Builder works on exercises which challenge users to move their eyes in various patterns, speeds, and directions. This eye movement technique is said to help improve concentration, impulse control, attention, and motivation.
$25, Available for iOS.
3Rosetta Stone’s Fit Brains
An online and mobile brain fitness program created by the popular language program makers targets key focus areas of the brain: memory, concentration, speed, visual, language, and problem solving. Games are skewed toward entertainment with treasure hunts, tropical islands, and amusing themes. Players tally points to see how they improve at the games over time.
Available online at rosettastone.com/fitbrains
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