10 Ways to Exercise Your Brain
The more you use it, the more you can use it. New learning causes new connections in the brain.
By Daniel G. Amen M.D.
Date: January 01, 2005
Published in: Amen Clinics Inc.
Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you can use it. New learning causes new connections in the brain. No learning causes the brain to start disconnecting itself. No matter what your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. Here are ten tips for mental workouts.
- Dedicate yourself to new learning. Put 15 minutes in your day to learn something new. Einstein said that if anyone spends 15 minutes a day learning something new in a year he will be an expert. As in school or business, commitment is critical to achieving greatness or great brains.
- Take a class about something new and interesting. In many areas of the country community colleges or groups such as the Learning Annex (www.learningannex.com) offer low cost classes on a wide variety of subjects. Attend a new class on a subject totally unrelated to your day-to-day life. It is important to challenge your brain to learn new and novel things, especially processes that you’ve never done before. Examples include square-dancing (great exercise), chess, tai chi, yoga, or sculpture. Working with modeling clay or Playdough can be good for children or adults to help them grow new connections. It helps develop agility and hand-brain coordination.
- Cross train at work. Learn someone else’s job. Maybe even switch jobs for several weeks. This benefits the business and employees alike, as both workers will have new skills and better brain function. For example, in a grocery store employees can be taught to work as check out clerks, stock shelves, order products, and alternately work in the produce, grocery and dairy sections of the store.
- Improve your skill at things you already do. Some repetitive mental stimulation is ok as long as you look to expand your skills and knowledge base. Common activities such as gardening, sewing, playing bridge, reading, painting, and doing crossword puzzles have value, but push yourself to do different gardening techniques, more complex sewing patterns, play bridge against more talented players to increase your skill, read new authors on varied subjects, learn a new painting technique, and work harder crossword puzzles. Pushing your brain to new heights help to keep it healthy.
- Limit television for kids and adults. In a study published in the journal Pediatrics it was reported that for every hour a day children watch TV there is a 10% increased chance of them being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). This means if the child watches five hours a day they have a 50% chance of being diagnosed with ADD. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry children spend three to four hours a day watching TV. In another study, and several others like it, television watching in children put them at risk for problems as adults that also affect brain health. Dr. R.J. Hancox and colleagues from the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine in Dunedin, New Zealand assessed approximately 1000 children born in 1972-73 at regular intervals up to age 26. They found that there was a significant association between higher body-mass indices, lower physical fitness, increased cigarette smoking and raised serum cholesterol. These are all factors that are involved in brain illnesses, such as strokes or Alzheimer’s Disease. In yet another study adults who watched two or more hours a day of TV had a significantly higher risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Watching TV is usually a no brain activity. To be fair, these studies did not specify if watching programs that teach you something had the same effect as situation comedies or sports. I suspect that no-brain TV shows are the problem.
- Limit video games. As a father of three children and a child psychiatrist I have thought a lot about video games over the past 15 years. At first, I found them great fun to play. Then I started to worry. Action video games have been studied using brain imaging techniques that look at blood flow and activity patterns. Video games have been found to work in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, one of the pleasure centers in the brain (WW). In fact, this is the same part of the brain that lights up when we inject a person with cocaine. My experience with patients and one of my own children is that they tend to get hooked on the games and play so much that it can deteriorate their school work, work and social time, a bit like a drug. Some children and adults actually get hooked on them.I recently had an experience that highlights how important TV and video games are to mental health problems. Joshua, a twelve year old boy, had been seeing me for several years for aggression, oppositional behavior, moodiness and school failure. It took me quite a while to get him stabilized, but with parent training, psychotherapy and some supplements he was doing great! Then he went to stay with his dad for 3 weeks and he totally relapsed (his father let him watch all the TV and play all the video games he wanted). Joshua reverted back to his nasty behavior and actually started to pull out his own hair (a sign of anxiety and compulsiveness). When we stopped both TV and video games he quickly improved.
- Join a reading group that keeps you accountable to new learning. Almost any mental activity you enjoy can be used to protect your brain. The essential requirement is that it activates several different brain areas, one of which should be the hippocampus (in the temporal lobes), which stores new information for retrieval later on. By recalling information (using your hippocampus) you are protecting your brain’s memory centers. In essence, as long as you learn something new about your favorite activity, and work to recall it later for discussions, you are protecting short-term memory. Given this information, it is better to join a reading group, where you are pushed to remember what you read for later discussion, rather than to read novels or newspapers that you just forget.
- Practice well what you are learning. The brain does not interpret what you feed into it; it simply translates it. When learning to play the piano, the brain doesn’t care if you are becoming a great piano player or a terrible piano player. Consequently, if you repeat imperfect fingering, you will become very good at playing imperfectly. If you are training yourself to be a perfect pianist it is essential that you practice perfectly and not learn bad habits or sloppy fingering of the keys. To play well it is helpful to work with a professional who can correct your mistakes. Your brain doesn’t care what you give it, so if you care whether you do something well or badly, you must be certain that you are giving your brain the right training. This is the reason why it is essential that children have good teachers who watch and monitor their progress and why we need to have effective training programs in the workplace. Teaching someone to do something well at the start prevents them from developing bad habits, which get solidified in the brain and are subsequently hard to retrain. I was once a consultant to a large medical practice that had significant employee turn over problems. As I investigated the problem I discovered that the office manager was poorly trained and had little social skill. She was rude and inappropriate with patients and she subsequently modeled that behavior to the front office staff. She was resistant to retraining (a cingulate gyrus that likely worked too hard) and ultimately she needed to be replaced. Effective initial training in the workplace and in school is essential to developing effective, happy employees and student. We do not just train people, we train brains.
- Break the routine of your life to stimulate new parts of the brain. Do the opposite of what feels natural to activate the other side of your brain to gain access to both hemispheres. Write with your other hand, shoot basketballs with both hands, hit baseballs left handed (if you are right handed), play table tennis left handed, shoot a rifle sighting with your other eye, use the mouse with your other hand — make your brain feel uncomfortable. In essence, break the patterned routine in your life to challenge your brain to make new connections.
- Treat learning problems to help kids and adults stay in school. Numerous studies show that better-educated people have less risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Millions of children, teens and adults suffer from ADD and learning problems that cause them to struggle in school or with learning despite having normal or even high intelligence. Recognizing these problems and getting them the help they need is essential to making “lifelong learning” a reality. You can take an online test for ADD at http://www.amenclinic.com.
Think of mental exercise as important as diet and physical exercise for keeping both you body and brain strong.
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