To Really Train Your Brain, Try Something New

In 2021, people spent an estimated $6.5 billion on brain training apps. Additionally, at least one research institution projects that the market will grow to more than $44 billion by 2030! When you think about it, these numbers shouldn’t be so surprising. We’ve learned a lot about neuroscience during the past several decades. And we know that as soon as our brains hit optimal functionality around our 30th birthday, it’s all downhill from there. Add to that, the fact that we are living and working longer, and it is easy to see why many of us are happy to invest money and time in brain training games and apps that promise to keep us sharper longer.  

Any medical professional will tell you that the best things for your brain are the same as the best things for your body; healthy diet choices, quality sleep, and regular exercise. Since a lifestyle overhaul is a very tall order, you can hang on to the hope that there is an easier way to keep your brain active and strong.  

Thus, a multi-billion-dollar industry was born and continues to grow at breakneck speed. The problem is, there is very little research proving that brain training programs do much more than make us better at playing the games used for training.  

But here’s the great news:  

There are ways to strengthen our brains that are easier than a wholesale lifestyle change, don’t cost a thing and are fun. It has to do with two concepts, neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve.  

Positive neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to continue growing and evolving in response to our behavior and life experiences. The extra functionality your brain develops in response to new experiences is called cognitive reserve. Negative neuroplasticity is the opposite – the ability of the brain to weaken or atrophy in the absence of new input. When we are experiencing negative neuroplasticity, we lose some of our cognitive reserve.  

Cognitive reserve is what keeps our minds sharp and flexible, no matter how old we are. As a matter of fact, a recent study showed that many Alzheimer’s patients with high cognitive reserve showed very few cognitive symptoms of the disease even though their brains showed they were in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s when they died. That’s extraordinary! We may not have a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, but thanks to neuroplasticity, we can mitigate the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s by increasing our cognitive reserve.  

Every day presents an opportunity to increase your cognitive reserve, and you can even have some fun in the process.  

Here are some of the best ways to build your cognitive reserve:  

Try something new.  

A great way to build your cognitive reserve is to continually stretch outside your comfort zone and try new things. Learning a new skill is shown to be particularly helpful, such as learning a new language or musical instrument. Or you can get creative and try a pottery or painting class, or a cooking class. Each time you learn or do something new, you forge a new neural pathway in your brain, which builds your cognitive reserve. Start small. Take a different route home. Vary your breakfast routine. Walk the supermarket aisles in a different order. Every new input builds cognitive reserve. 

Step up your current game.  

Take your favorite activity to the next level by increasing the level of difficulty. To challenge yourself intellectually, choose progressively harder crossword puzzles or seek out opportunities to read or speak a language you’re learning. If you cook for your family every night, try some completely different recipes. It all works.  

Travel  

Visiting a new place provides multiple opportunities to interact with new people, gain new experiences, and visit sites you’ve never seen before. Exposure to new sights, sounds, and even smells enhance new connections in your brain. Travel abroad is especially beneficial, because you have the added challenges of communicating in another language and making your way in a different culture.  

Entertain Yourself!  

Cultural activities are enriching and intellectually stimulating, especially when you incorporate learning into the experience. For example, as you walk through a museum, read the descriptions next to each painting to learn about the artist, medium, and style. Take a tour led by an experienced museum guide or participate in a question-and-answer session with an artist. Skip The Avengers and go to an intriguing foreign film you’ve heard about. If you’re unable to get to these kinds of events in person, watch them on YouTube or a streaming service. Culture is everywhere these days.  

Listen to Music 

Regardless of your musical preferences, listening to music is uplifting and mentally stimulating. Certain songs transport you back to when you first heard them. Music has even been shown to have the power to reach areas of the brain damaged by dementia. Listening to new music and learning how to play a musical instrument are two ways to challenge your mind through music. Singing may be the simplest way to get started, and choirs offer opportunities to combine music-making with social interaction. Dancing or moving to music combine the benefits of music and physical exercise, as well as a fun way to socialize. But simply listening to a song you’ve never heard before, builds your cognitive reserve.  

The Bottom Line 

Once you start thinking about it, you will be able to find endless opportunities to strengthen your brain, every day. No app necessary. You may also consider adopting some new healthy habits to make sure you have a healthy body to keep up with that big brain you’re building.

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