Ahead of the Game: How to Train Your Brain

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(Photo: Blog of Neuroethics Canada)

Just like this contemplative chimpanzee, you and I think about all sorts of different things, day in and day out. However, how our brains think can change over time, thanks to neuroplasticity—the concept that our brains are malleable and have the potential for growth. This means that we have the ability to become better thinkers. How to go about improving is the next logical question, and a recent report by Harvard Health Publishing provides tips to help us train our brains to perform better.

There are certain behaviors that train the brain for cognitive growth. As it turns out, new behaviors are most helpful when it comes to the development of cognitive skills. For example, if you have never tried playing Jenga before, trying it out just might help you become a better thinker!

There’s more to the story, though. Beyond simply engaging in a new activity, maintaining your participation in that activity is crucial to long-lasting cognitive growth. As Dr. John N. Morris, Director of Social and Health Policy Research at the Harvard-affiliated Institute for Aging Research, put it, “The more time you devote to engaging your brain, the more it benefits.”

Furthermore, the report suggests that it is best to choose a challenging activity when you decide to train your brain. Dr. Morris notes, “Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy.”

Beyond engaging in new, thinking-based, and recurrent activities, you should also maintain regular involvement in physical exercise. Evidence shows that regular physical exercise can help train the brain, bringing about lifelong cognitive benefits. According to the Harvard report, these benefits could include improved memory recall, problem solving, concentration, and attention to detail. At the same time, such research is not causal, meaning that exercising regularly, by itself, does not directly cause cognitive improvement. It’s possible that a combination of factors—physical exercise along with other influences—help the brain grow.

In addition, research has shown that activities that require a creative mindset can train the brain’s cognition. Examples include painting, learning to play the clarinet, composing literature, and learning a language. This idea is related to the notion that new activities are more conducive to cognitive development: you are telling your brain to step out of its comfort zone and become more expansive. By getting good at something new, your brain is expanding its knowledge base and learning to work with new information.

How does a university education like that of UPenn fit into this discussion? As the report emphasizes, classes are gateways to the basics of any new activity. This is particularly the case for activities that require specific skill sets, such as the visual and performing arts. Perhaps next semester, challenge yourself to a new subject. Teach yourself new skills in an unfamiliar field. These could prove to be invaluable experiences down the road.

In the end, it is novelty, consistency, creativity, and cognition that ultimately define an activity that trains the brain. Be firm with your commitment to whatever you choose to do, and challenge your brain to take it to the next level. Because soon enough, it will.

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