5 Brain Boosting Tips to Keep Your Mind Flexible & Fabulous
Neuroscience is a field that has been blowing up for a while now, and we have more concrete information about our cognition than ever before. We’ve also discovered we know much less than we’d ever anticipated! Despite this contradiction, there are undeniable factors related to brain health that are confirmed by studies again and again. For me, those factors distill down to:
- We must keep the brain flexible through new growth and lifelong learning.
- Brain health is inseparable from whole body health.
- Whole body health is impossible without community.
- Stress is a mind-killer (which means fear is a mind-killer too, ‘Dune’ fans…).
What does that all mean? Well, learning new things maintains your neural plasticity (the flexibility of your brain), which reduces the decline in your memory and cognition. Also unsurprisingly, research shows that eating a balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables and exercising regularly are key factors in a healthy brain, and a healthy everything else. Very specifically in regards to cognitive health though, a 30 year study of 2300 men has found a 60% lower incidence of cognitive impairment and dementia in men who participate in those healthy behaviors, avoid smoking, and drink moderately.
Maybe you’re wondering about that number 3 ‘community’ piece? Again, studies across disciplines show that strong social support correlates with better health and wellbeing, and isolation correlates with poorer health and wellbeing. Life stressors and negative life events tend to have a much more significant impact on functioning in the absence of community. Chronic stress negatively impacts synapse regulation, and quite literally results in some brain cell death and a shrinking of the prefrontal cortex over time (which is the executive center in charge of memory and learning).
So what’s the good news, when we live in a society bathed in stress, soothed by things that might not be very good for us, and often quite isolated? The good news is it’s never too late. While genetics, early life experiences, frequency/intensity of life stressors, and previous lifestyle choices do impact your brain health, you have a boundless series of choices starting today that offer your brain protection and boost its brilliance. Your brain and body are surprisingly resilient and responsive to improvements in care.
So without further ado, let’s look at 5 incredibly satisfying ways to keep your mind nimble, quick, and most of all, fascinated.
1. Learn Something New, and Teach it Too!
Okay, I definitely started the list with one of the higher commitment components, but this isn’t a ‘go back to school’ kick. This is about following your excitement for discovery and sharing that discovery. Staying connected to the awe and wonder of your inner child keeps you young!
On the obvious level, learning something is an immediate route to brain growth. You’re literally creating new neural connections. Studies show that developing a new skill improves memory and cognition, whether it’s photography, learning a language, learning to embroider, taking a cooking class, picking up an instrument, picking up golf, or something else.
Learning a new language in particular has shown improvements in not just memory, but in creative thinking processes and visual-spatial skills. And remember, this isn’t about becoming fluent! It’s just about engaging in the learning, and enjoying it. You can start using a daily language learning app like DuoLingo, or join an in-person class where you can get the community kick too. If that’s too pricey or impractical, maybe you can find a conversation partner to practice with over a coffee once a week, or meet someone new to do a language learning exchange online!
Which brings us to the teaching. Teaching while you are learning helps you learn better. It adds to the ‘practice makes perfect’ part! It also helps you figure out how to explain, demonstrate, and adapt to the other person. Also, again, connection to others! Feelings of growth and competence!
If you need a simpler place to start, it can really be as small as building your vocabulary by reading and exploring a new word each day, finding a way to use the word in conversation, and explaining the word to others!. Decide what your capacity is right now and pick the thing that fits.
2. Dance, Dance Baby!
Okay, this can easily fall into the ‘learn something new’ category, but it deserves extra emphasis. First, I’d like to add a caveat that since a balanced diet and increase in exercise are basic cornerstones for brain health, I decided not to include them as separate elements in this list. However, since we are talking about a form of movement that inevitably makes you sweat, I suppose it is worth mentioning why said sweating is so important.
- Exercise has the opposite effect to stress: rather than killing brain cells and shrinking the brain, it stimulates neurogenesis (literally creates new growth in your brain) and neuroplasticity.
- It also offers brain protection by reducing inflammation, improving blood flow, and dropping your cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
But that’s just exercise overall. What makes dance so special? It offers you the trifecta of community connection, movement, and learning something new. In fact, the new learning never stops because you keep learning variations of dances, steps, and usually end up improvising too. No matter how much you master, there is still somewhere new to go. Basically, it’s super fun, and can be as challenging as you want it to be! This specific type of ‘new learning’ really stimulates your brain’s processing speed and engages your memory system.
There is a style of dance for everyone, so try a bunch out or pick the one that excites you the most! If you don’t have other options, you can dance at home in a virtual class, but that does alter the ‘community’ component. Perhaps a friend can come join you, or you can do it with a partner or family member. But it’s even better if there is a real-world class you can join.
3. Make a Habit Out of Play
How excellent is that guy? Being playful, silly, celebratory, spontaneous. All these things stimulate mental flexibility and allow creative thinking and growth. But here I’m also talking about specific types of play, namely, puzzles and games.
Puzzles engage multiple mental strategies alongside your cognitive visuospatial system, which beautifully challenges your brain. Working on a puzzle can be restorative and meditative on your own, and a calm activity to share with friends and family. Card games? Friendly competition (again, the social element), as well as an apparent booster of brain volume and memory skills. Sudoku, crosswords, scrabble, chess, checkers, even video games. If you’re using creative thinking, strategy, memory, and spatial awareness, you’re exercising your brain and increasing cognitive protection. This is as opposed to passive stimulation, like watching TV, which has been correlated to cognitive decline when done in excess without a balance of other factors.
Want to take your mental exercising up a notch? Try a brain training program like Lumosity.
4. Keep Switching It Up
Literally everything we’ve been talking about so far is about making sure you keep your brain flexible and growing. But those all involve adding something new to your life. This does too, sort of, but in a way that plays with the daily repeated tasks and habits that already exist in your life. This could look like:
- Taking a different route to work, to the supermarket, or to some other place you frequent regularly.
- Taking an established routine you have at home, and doing it in a different order (e.g. if you have a series of things you do every morning).
- Using your non-dominant hand for something different each day: brushing your teeth or hair, washing your face or putting cream on, writing notes, drawing a doodle, maybe even eating dinner. This is something discussed in the book ‘Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness’, by neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, in case you’re interested.
These three suggestions are listed in order of how challenging they are, so you can pepper them through your days and weeks, and they will keep your brain alert and rupture your automatic rhythms of moving and thinking.
5. Find Your Zen
Last but not least, and in beautiful continuation from ‘switching it up’, is discovering how to best stay relaxed and connected in the here-and-now. Mindfulness, alongside (and now often in tandem with) neuroscience, has been burgeoning as a protective powerhouse for whole body health. ‘Switching it up’, the way we suggested previously, is a form of mindfulness. You have to be very present to do something differently.
Mindfulness is, at the core, a brain training that disrupts past-and-present thinking patterns and builds the neural networks for focus and deep presence. It increases your capacity to tolerate difficult thoughts and emotions, helping you regulate, reflect on, and process them. All of this reduces your stress and develops your brain. Specifically, it happens to improve your information-processing and memory retention!.
Mindfulness can look like taking up a meditation practice, which we’ve discussed at length in various blogs at The Wellness Project. We usually suggest starting with short (5 min), guided meditations that you can find on Youtube, in the Calm or Headspace App, or using Insight Timer, if you’re not an established meditator.
If meditation makes you nervous or doesn’t feel like your jam just yet, you can focus on mindful activities: literally doing anything you like, while being fully mindful for a few minutes and noting the entire multisensory experience of it. This could be taking a shower, doing the dishes, driving, coloring, putting cream on your legs, or eating a cookie. It could be listening intently while someone speaks to you, or noticing 10 things about the room you’re in you’ve never noticed before, related to touch, smell, sight and sound.
If you want to take the multisensory component of mindfulness and meditation and try them out in an intentional and incredible form of movement, you might want to give Tai Chi a shot. It has the stress-busting benefits of meditation, as well as community, movement, and new learning components. Basically, it also contributes to notable brain growth and keeps you grounded. It’s worth mentioning that all mindfulness, meditation, and related practices show positive effects on sleep, which is an important factor in maintaining a healthy brain.
That’s all for now folks. In summary: Don’t stress, nourish your body, play, do new things, break a moderate sweat regularly, stay connected to others, try to get some sleep, and you’ll be okay.
Got some brain boosters we’ve missed? Love something we shared? Let us know in the comments. It makes us happy to hear from you.