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Published on February 24, 2020

6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

Dolly Parton may have said it best when she sang,

“The day you’re born is the day you start to die.”

Bleak? Sure, but it also gets to the heart of why we need to take care of our brains while we still can. If you want your cognitive thinking to stay sharp into your golden years, you need to take active steps now to improve and preserve those skills.

Luckily, the brain doesn’t stop growing and developing when you become an adult. Our brains are plastic, which means they can continue to change. Therefore, it’s a good idea to learn some tips and tricks on how to improve your cognitive thinking while you still can.

This article will give you 6 scientifically proven, research-backed ways to preserve and improve your cognitive thinking. The first three lay the foundation for healthy brain functioning, and the last three are strategies to improve higher-order cognitive thinking skills throughout the day.

Cognition Defined

Cognition is anything having to do with intellectual activity. Examples of cognitive skills are remembering, thinking, and reasoning. Basically, cognition is anything having to do with your conscious thought processes.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gives us a cheat sheet for a variety of cognitive thinking skills. Increasing in difficulty and complexity, Bloom’s Taxonomy includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and then creating. [1]

Ways to Improve Cognitive Thinking

1. Reduce Stress

The human brain doesn’t operate at full capacity when it’s stressed out. Research shows that stress exacerbates or even leads to illnesses such as depression, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[2]

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Therefore, managing stress is crucial to optimal cognitive thinking and overall brain health. Here are a few ways to help manage your stress.

Breathing Exercises

Stress reduction comes in many forms. Some of the most effective are breathing exercises, meditation, and taking walks.

Breathing exercises for stress reduction should include slow, measured deep breaths. Focus on the breath itself as you breathe in and out. This takes your mind off your stressors and delivers some much-needed oxygen to the brain, something it needs for optimal cognitive thinking.

Meditation

Meditation also helps with stress reduction. Even five minutes of meditation a day can have significant impacts on stress levels.

Meditation is about monitoring your thoughts more than forcing yourself to not think. As new thoughts pop in your head, just let them roll on by. Some people visualize their thoughts as clouds to help themselves with their meditation practice.

Take a Walk

It’s often better to walk away when you’re stressed than to try to muscle through. To reduce stress, take a break. Get some fresh air to help you clear your head and avoid being reactive. Moreover, getting out into nature is good for the soul.

2. Do Aerobic Activity

Another way to improve your cognitive thinking is to get some aerobic exercise. Moving your body and increasing your heart and breathing rates have been shown to stop the natural deterioration in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices, which decreases cognitive thinking.[3] Deterioration of these regions is a natural part of aging, but getting aerobic exercise can help slow the decline.

Brisk Walking

You may not think walking is vigorous enough to count as aerobic activity, but it absolutely is. Just pick up the pace and walk as fast as you’re able. Twenty minutes of brisk walking each day will go a long way toward boosting your cognitive thinking.

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Swimming

Swimming is a great choice for aerobic activity. It’s easy on the joints, and you won’t even know you’re sweating as you do laps in the pool.

Yoga

Certain types of yoga, such as Ashtanga, can give you an aerobic boost in addition to helping you with meditation and flexibility.

3. Get Plenty of Sleep

Research also points to sleep as an important part of optimal cognitive functioning. One study indicates that sleep may be an integral part of memory.

Sleep is when the brain ditches certain synaptic connections in order to strengthen others. Basically, your brain needs sleep to sift through everything that happens to you each day, remembering what’s important and forgetting the rest.

It’s recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Keep in mind that sleep isn’t something that you can catch up on. Consistency is crucial.

Consistent Bedtime Routine

In order to ensure you’re falling asleep at around the same time each night, a consistent bedtime routine is important. Come up with your bedtime routine and stick with it. Switching up your routine can mess up your sleep schedule.

Limit Your Screen Time

As part of your consistent bedtime routine, make sure to limit screen time at least an hour before bed. Screens release dopamine in your brain and get your adrenaline pumping, so they also get some people too amped up to easily fall asleep each night.

Also, make sure to set your phone to Do Not Disturb, so it doesn’t interrupt your sleep with beeps and buzzes. In fact, researchers now say that keeping it in a different room altogether may be even better for a good night’s rest.

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Melatonin

Melatonin can also help you fall and stay asleep. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that spikes during nighttime sleep cycles, so supplementing with a Melatonin pill can help the body with its circadian rhythms, getting you the sleep your body needs for optimal cognitive thinking during the day.

4. Cognitive Simulations

Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep lay the foundation for improving cognitive thinking, but to really boost your brain, there are three more strategies you can implement during the day.

Cognitive simulations are really just brain teasers where the individual must use their existing knowledge to come up with solutions to novel problems — think crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Cognitive simulations boost the brain’s cognitive processing abilities because the brain is plastic, meaning it’s malleable. If you don’t use the brain’s ability to take new information and solve problems, you lose it.[4]

Therefore, it’s crucial to keep your brain challenged and active. Cognitive simulations are one way to do exactly that.[5]

5. Thinking Aloud

The next strategy to improve your cognitive thinking is a technique called thinking aloud. It’s as simple as it sounds. Instead of thinking silently in your head, verbalize your thought processes.

Thinking aloud is a great training tool. It helps the teacher hear where the student’s comprehension needs improvement. It has also been shown to improve clinical outcomes in nurses.[6] Thinking aloud forces you to verbalize all parts of a problem, which helps you avoid oversights.

6. Concept Mapping

Finally, concept mapping can also improve your cognitive thinking. Concept mapping is a visual representation of someone’s thoughts — think word webs. Concept maps are basically just drawings that demonstrate all the connections and relationships between ideas.

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In one study, concept maps improved the critical thinking of grad-level nurses.[7] Similar to thinking aloud, concept mapping showed deficiencies in student thinking, but also strengthened the students’ critical thinking skills.

It’s like that saying, if you want to really learn something, teach it. By mapping what we know, we force ourselves to ruminate on all we do and don’t know about a certain topic. This strengthens our understanding and makes clear where we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive thinking isn’t the same as critical thinking. Cognitive thinking also includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep are crucial for making sure our brains are healthy, getting plenty of oxygen, and sorting through memories each night.

During the day, we can exercise our brains with cognitive simulations, thinking aloud, and concept mapping to improve our higher-order cognitive thinking.

You may have started dying since the day you were born, but a better way to look at it is that your brain can continue to grow and develop until the day you die. Just make sure you’re actively improving your cognitive thinking with these six tips.

More on Improving Thinking

Featured photo credit: Clever Visuals via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Published on July 7, 2020

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

The Skinny on Mental Workouts

Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

1. Improved Memory

After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

2. Reduced Stress Levels

Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

3. Improved Work Performance

Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

1. Brainstorming

One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

2. Dancing

Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

3. Learning a New Language

Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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4. Developing a Hobby

Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

For example:

  • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
  • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
  • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
  • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

5. Board Games

Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

6. Card Games

Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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7. Puzzles

Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

8. Playing Music

Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

9. Meditating

Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
  • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
  • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
  • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
  • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

10. Deep Conversation

There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

11. Cooking

When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

12. Mentorship

Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

Final Thoughts

Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

More Tips for Training Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

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