Exercising your brain

We are all aware of the advantages of exercising our body. But how many of us think about exercising our minds – which means exercising our brains? Well, there are good arguments for this. Newspapers these days often run articles about the advantages of exercising the aging brain – something I can relate to. But this may be a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Or putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Like the body, the brain should be exercised all our life.

Dr Ginger Campbell has some interesting articles on these subjects on her site The Brainscience Podcast. I’m indebted to Damian for recommending this site to me – and I recommend it to anyone interested at all this fascinating area of science.

Wisdom of age

Many of you might find Brain Science Podcast #17: The Wisdom of the Aging Brain interesting. Some of us know that as we age many of our faculties do slow down. Our memory may not be as efficient. But we do feel wiser – and research supports this! This podcast discusses research described by Dr Elkhonon Goldberg in his book The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older.

One advantage older people have is improved pattern recognition. This enables us to make decisions and assessments about complex situations more quickly than younger people. In effect this is wisdom. So wisdom does come with age. A pity this isn’t understood more widely in our society (or by our employers).

I know, I know! You can easily find exceptions. Perhaps pattern recognition can sometimes be a liability. Perhaps it can trap us in old ways of thinking. As J. Scott Fitzgerald said: “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look. At forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

Brain exercise

This is where brain exercise helps. And exercise means more than doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles. In Brain Science Podcast #18 Dr Campbell interviews Dr Goldberg. In this he discusses his theory of specialisation by the two brain hemispheres. He sees the left hemisphere as dealing mainly with the familiar while the right hemisphere deals with the new. This parallels the popular idea of the logical left-hand and the artistic right-hand sides of the brain.

With aging, the right hemisphere tends to decrease in size – possibly because we often fall into comfortable patterns of life. We don’t challenge our brains with new ideas and experiences as we did when we were younger. Especially after retirement, we may have fewer opportunity for such challenges.

Dr Goldberg argues that brain exercise is just as important as body exercise. But there must be exercises for the right hemisphere, which deals with the novel, as well as the left. He even suggests that one can get professional help in this – just as we can pay to attend a gym and get a personal trainer. Two website offering help with such cognitive enhancement are SharpBrains and HeadStrong Cognitive Fitness.

Practical exercises

Alvaro Fernandez gives similar advice in his article 10 Brain Fitness New Year resolutions. Using these ideas, and Dr Goldberg’s advice, here are my suggestions for some brain exercises we could consider here in New Zealand to provide novelty, variety and challenge.

1: Physical exercise. The brain cannot exist apart from the body. Good physical health will help ensure good brain health.

2: Be involved in society. These days that might mean internet activity as much as, or perhaps more than, the old version of social activity.

3: Think critically about this year’s election. Not just arguing for support of the party for which you traditionally vote. Really think about and evaluate policies and what candidates say. You may still vote the same way but you might have better reasons for your decision. And if the other party wins – you may have a better understanding of the actions and motives of the new government.

4: Critically assess the messages you get through the media. Be aware of how advertising influences you – and resist it! Make your own buying decisions. Do the same with news items – particularly be aware of political messages.

5: Reading habits. Try reading something different. If you always read fiction, try some non-fiction. Particularly try reading something by an author, or on a subject, you might disagree with. If you normally read scientific books, try something by one of the “intelligent design” authors (and vice versa, of course). It probably won’t convert you – but you will probably get a better appreciation of how why other people think the way they do.

6: Learn something new. And don’t feel you need to aim high. As Goldberg says a 70-year old person who sets out to learn the piano will probably not end up playing as a concert pianist but the process will be good brain exercise. Learning new artistic skill is a good way of providing open-ended stimulation of the brain.

7: Research a controversial subject in depth. Whatever your own views really look at all the evidence both for and against. The internet makes it possible for anyone to carry out in-depth research. Be aware that not all sources are reliable. Consider more academic or scientific sources. Google Scholar is a good search engine for this sort of research.

8: Cultivate critical thinking. As Fernandez says – “Ask yourself ‘Where is the evidence?’ at least once a day.” Don’t just accept the views of others (or your own prejudices). Ask for the evidence, or look for it yourself. You may change your mind about some things (which surely is healthy). Or you may not – but you will be better informed. You will have better reasons for your beliefs.

And your brain will be exercised!

See also:
Brain Science Podcast #1: Mind Wide Open
Brain Science Podcast #2: On Intelligence
Brain Science Podcast #4: The Great Brain Debate
Brain Science Podcast #19: Gut Feelings
Brain Science Podcast #21: Body Maps

Related Articles:
Using your brain
Why do we believe?

4 responses to “Exercising your brain

  1. Excellent write-up once again Ken.
    Two forms of mental exercise that I’ve tried recently that I reckon have really helped are memorising cards and playing Big Brain Academy on the Nintendo Wii with my wife!
    Although points 3, 4 and 8 might seem like potentially the weakest ways to exercise your brain I believe that critical thinking has been by far the greatest contributor to my brain development over the last year or two.
    Also, I’ve tried omega 3 tablets but didn’t notice any difference – perhaps they only work on children?

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  2. I wouldn’t give up on omega-3 yet, Damian, although I personally prefer to get these through a balanced diet. Dietary intake may only have noticeable effects (negative) after prolonged deficiency. Although I understand there is some research suggesting noticeable positive effects with increases of intake. Perhaps with children the effects are more immediate and with us they are more complex?

    Computer games have never been my thing, really. But I did hear someone say recently that the progressive aspect – going on to the next level after managing the current level – is an ideal way of exercising the brain. Seems logical to me as it would keep stimulating the right hemisphere as well as providing activity for the left.

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  3. This week’s episode of the Brain Science Podcast, which will come out on March 21, 2008 will be an in depth look at the importance of physical exercise in brain health.

    Look for episode 33 at http://brainsciencepodcast.com

    Ginger Campbell, MD
    host of the Brain Science Podcast

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  4. Hey Dr Campbell – I love your podcast. Keep up the good work!

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