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Published on October 29, 2019

8 Brain Exercises for Mental Strength and a Smarter Brain

8 Brain Exercises for Mental Strength and a Smarter Brain

Everyone says that we need to strive for a healthy body. These people are the people who say we should be going to the gym, exercise daily, and eat the right kind of food.

And while that advice is helpful, I feel a lot of people forget about another important part of ourselves: our brain.

Think about it.

When was the last time that you read a book?

Most are likely guilty of not having read a book in years. From 2004 to 2018, the number of people in America leisurely reading has dropped by 30%.[1]

We place so much priority on our bodies, and yet most of us don’t prioritize brain exercises or brain care. Why is that?

Fortunately, with brain exercises, we can reverse a lot of the damage that’s been done. Thanks to massive developments in neuroscience, we understand when our brain is at peak performance and what we can do to maintain it or bring it back to those levels.

Do Brain Exercises Really Work?

The short answer is yes.

First, there is all of Sherry Willis’ work. From her efforts, participants were able to do varying degrees of difficult tasks. Not only that but they were able to do so in an efficient manner than before.

There was also an extensive study that looked at the long-term effects of brain exercises on older individuals. The study provided brain exercises to 2,832 individuals aged 65 and up.[2]

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Over a 10 year period, participants were given training in processing speed, memory, and reasoning. Another smaller controlled group received no such training.

After that 10 year period, the researchers came back after 5 years to see results. While the training did help the older individuals during the 10 years of brain exercises, those benefits were gone after 5 years.

After 10 years of having the brain training, there were no signs of brain improvements.

What this study uncovers is that not only does the training work, but also it’s important to practice this regularly. Similar to our health, if we don’t train our bodies, it’ll deteriorate similar to our brain if we don’t exercise it.

Which Brain Exercises Are The Best?

According to research done in 1999, our brain reaches peak performance between age 16 and 25.[3] After that, our cognitive functioning – our ability to mentally process and carry out tasks – declines naturally. This doesn’t mean that we will be mentally incapable of working after a certain period of time though. Rather, our ability to change, process certain tasks, and introduce new processes will be tougher.

Understanding this is important since brain exercises are designed to keep the brain functional all around.[4] Examples are being able to do daily tasks, retaining memories, and keeping focus. This might not be a big issue right now but, it becomes more pressing when you get older and there are threats of dementia, amnesia, and Alzheimers — mental issues that could be stopped through regular exercise of our brains.

The question is, what sort of exercises are best for us?

Simple: personalized brain exercises.

Many people have tried all kinds of tactics to exercise their brains. And while there is research to support a variety of these claims, there’s more scientific support behind this particular form of training.

The strategy has been proven by Dr. Sherry Willis, a professor at the University of Texas. Through her research, she proved participants became more efficient at performing typical tasks at varying levels of complexity.[5]

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Participants were able to write shopping lists to being able to operate technical equipment with ease.

The big question now is where can you find these sorts of programs?

Since this research emerged, many businesses have been formed to help in this area. Training can be as simple as playing Sudoku to having full-fledged programs given out by various apps.[6]

8 Brain Exercises to Strengthen Your Brain

While having a personalized brain training course is great, not everyone is mentally prepared for them. Instead, people may find it better to strengthen their brains in other ways.

While these methods lack built-in long-term challenges or personalization, those can be mitigated. That is, if you want to start taking care of your brain as much as you want to look after the rest of your body.

1. Exercise

Studies from 2006 show that exercise has tremendous benefits on our brain. Specifically, exercising can protect our brain from shrinkage as it ages.[7]

While exercise may not be the most engaging or challenging brain exercise, this is one way to get the best of both worlds. Not only that, but you can add a layer of challenge by doing different exercises.

This helps because it teaches our brain to fire off new signals to our brain. This increases our brains plasticity – the ability to change and think differently. Thus doing new exercises will strengthen our brains.

2. Drawing Maps

A lot of us remember the streets we grew up like the back of our hands. We can navigate it with ease with no challenge.

But have you ever drawn it out before?

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One good challenge is to draw out the streets and what your neighbourhood looked like. Try to recall iconic landmarks and place them on the map as well.

Once you’re done with the map, find a real map and compare it with the one you drew. More often than not, you probably missed a few spots here and there. This happens because our brain doesn’t store that specific information for very long. Once we know where we want to go, our brain typically signals us to go a familiar route. We subconsciously comply and think nothing else of it.

Regardless, drawing a map can help us strengthen our brain and is a step above physical exercise since this demands more brainpower. I’d also encourage you to challenge yourself further and draw larger scale maps. Why not draw a map of the United State and write in all the state’s locations and capitals? Why not do the same with Canada?

3. Learning Something New

Barring personalized training, the best form of brain exercise stems from doing something different. Starting something new requires a lot of mental capacity.

Not only are you learning to do something new, but you also need to keep yourself motivated to continue doing it. Because of this, learning something new will keep us on our toes.

What’s also nice is that the activities don’t need to be really challenging. For example, one study had two groups and was asked to do different activities.[8] One group was asked to learn new skills like quilting or digital photography. The other was asked to watch movies or listen to the radio.

The study found that those quilting or doing digital photography had a better memory than those who had more leisure activities. They proved this by giving the individuals memory tests.

4. Socialize

When we get older, we tend to have a smaller circle of friends and thus, talk less and less. What’s saddening is the lack of social activity negatively impacts our mental health.

We’re obviously social creatures, so it should come to no surprise that being socially active is one way to exercise our brain. It also is one way of fighting back dementia and Alzheimer’s.[9]

Even if you are an introvert, seeking social interactions clearly has short-term and long-term benefits. Some ideas to be socially active is by joining clubs, going for daily walks with people, volunteering in your community, or staying in contact with your family or past friends.

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5. Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle

Big or small, research shows that this exercise recruits multiple cognitive abilities.[10]

6. Playing Card Games

Similarly, card games both online and offline can prove useful for your brain. One study in 2015 found that card games activate various parts of the brain.[11] Games included poker, crazy eights, solitaire, bridge, and gin rummy.

7. Learning a New Language

I mentioned earlier that learning something new is good but, it doesn’t always have to be a physical skill. Learning a new language activates many regions of our brain while also boosting cognition.[12]

8. Taking a New Route to a Familiar Destination

That or simply go down a different road. This doesn’t apply to driving or travelling but to any sort of problem that you deal with in life. By pushing yourself to think of other alternatives, your brain receives a number of benefits from making a simple change as these taxi drivers discovered.

Bottom Line

A lot of the reasons to consider brain exercises in our lives is similar to our health. As you can probably tell, these exercises do not take very long. They can be easily integrated into our daily lives.

Furthermore, brain exercises improve our focus, memory, and ability to complete daily activities. To stop doing brain exercises is to remove all of those benefits that can help us significantly as we get older.

So if you can’t get personalized brain training, consider the strategies I mentioned above. You’d be surprised how easy and how quickly you’ll notice changes in your life from this.

More to Sharpen Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Micael Sáez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”

      Example

      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Artofmemory.com. Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.

        Example

        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.

        C

        J

        H

        D

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        P

        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.

        Cubs

        Just

        Hate

        Doing

        Push-ups

        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to Artofmemory.com, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.

          Example

          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe

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          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.

            Example

            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?

            081127882

            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.

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            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.

              Example

              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via unsplash.com

              Reference

              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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