The #1 Best Way to Challenge Your Brain and Stay Sharp

Picture of The #1 Best Way to Challenge Your Brain and Stay Sharp
By Cynthia Dalton
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. — Bertrand Russell

It’s More Important Than Ever to Stay Sharp

The world used to move more slowly. Many people remained in the same job, doing pretty much the same tasks, until they retired. Today, our world is rapidly changing due to constantly evolving technology and shifting societal forces. We live in a time of creativity and constant change. Therefore, we need to adapt to change and new information more quickly than ever before. Mental sharpness and focus is now mandatory in order to advance through our careers and lives.

Don’t believe it? Just think about how many times in the past ten years alone you’ve changed the way you receive news, communicate with family and friends, or seek out entertainment. To say nothing of the role technology has played in your career — how many new apps, computer programs, and mobile devices have you gone through in ten years? A fast-paced, ever-evolving environment requires us to adapt quickly or be left behind. The future will belong to those who are agile and effectively utilize the one essential tool needed to manage and leverage change for the betterment of themselves and their loved-ones and that tool is one’s mind.

The Best Way to Exercise Those Lobes

The key to challenging your brain and staying sharp is by improving and maintaining brain function through means that encourage the brain to grow and repair itself. But not all training and/or games that purport to do that actually work at full effectiveness. The key is in understanding the process known as neuroplasticity.

According to Dr. Celeste Campbell, writing for brainline.org, neuroplasticity is:

… the brain's amazing capacity to change and adapt. It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.
Neuroplasticity is definitely a factor in recovery from brain injury. In fact, it is the basis for much of our cognitive and physical rehabilitation practices. Part of rehabilitation is aimed at trying to rebuild connections among the nerve cells — or neurons. This "re-wiring" of the brain can make it possible for a function previously managed by a damaged area to be taken over by another undamaged area. The connections among the cells are infinitely receptive to this type of change and expansion.

Writing for positivepsychologyprogram.com, Courtney Ackerman, a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University states:

The relation between neuroplasticity and learning is an easy one to surmise — when we learn, we form new pathways in the brain. Each new lesson has the potential to connect new neurons and change our brain’s default mode of operation.
Of course, not all learning is created equal — learning new facts doesn’t necessarily take advantage of the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain but learning a new language or a musical instrument certainly does. It is through this sort of learning that we may be able to figure out how to purposefully rewire the brain.
The extent to which we apply the brain’s near-magical abilities is also dependent on how invested we are in promoting neuroplasticity and how we approach life in general.

So what are you looking for in brain training? In his article, This is The Only Type of Brain Training That Works, According to Science, for fastcompany.com, Michael Grothaus states:

These plasticity-based changes actually form new neuropathways in your brain — literally changing its shape. The new neuropathways can then be called upon to help you process stimuli beyond just the specific methods used in the brain training exercises. This is why brain training that results in neuroplastic changes works much better than simple memory “brain training” games, which may help you remember where, for example, the red card is hidden, but won’t help you remember the details from that last meeting with your client.

Therefore, many apps and games supposedly designed to improve brain functioning miss the mark because they are essentially memory games. What really happens is that with practice, the user gets better at that particular app but these apps may not be training the brain to be faster and sharper overall.

Daily Activities to Enhance Neuroplasticity

What sorts of activities should we engage in daily to capture the power of neuroplasticity? In the article, 10 Proven Ways To Grow Your Brain: Neurogenesis And Neuroplasticity, for huffpost.com, Thai Nguyen’s suggestions include:

Traveling: which exposes the brain to new environments and unfamiliar stimuli, which opens up new pathways and new activity in the brain.

Learning a musical instrument: which may help form new neural networks and increase connectivity between brain regions.

Non-dominant hand exercises: which can strengthen the connectivity between neurons and form new neural pathways.

Reading fiction: which enhances and increases connectivity in the brain as the brain actively seeks to remember what’s what and who’s who in order to figure out what’s going on in the plot.

Expanding your vocabulary: which activates memory processing as well as the visual and auditory processes.

Creating artwork: which enhances connectivity of the brain at rest (the “default mode network” or DMN), and can enhance focus, introspection, memory, attention, and empathy.

Dancing: because it, “increases neural connectivity and forces you to integrate several brain functions at once: kinesthetic; rational; musical; and emotional. If you're dancing with a partner, learning both ‘Lead’ and ‘Follow’ roles will increase your cognitive stimulation which increases neural connectivity.”

Sleeping: because it, “… helps learning retention with the growth of dendritic spines, the tiny protrusions that connect brain cells and facilitates the passage of information across synapses. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.”

The article, This is The Only Type of Brain Training That Works, According to Science, for fastcompany.com, by Michael Grothaus, also suggests such simple exercises as:

  • Take the long way home–and notice everything around you. Explore new ways to travel around your neighborhood and notice, and commit to memory, details you hadn’t observed before.
  • Get active and eat right. “In other words, it’s going to be harder to maintain a sharp brain if your body is diverting its energy to fighting other elements in your body, like high blood pressure. So avoid consuming too much salt and get out there for a walk or a run — and if you want to work in exercise and brain training in one go, adjust your runs every few days to let your brain discover new paths and routes around your home.”

There are also online training courses/games. However, Michael Grothaus warns:

… brain games have been rushed to market to make a buck and will fail in serious trials. It’s important to realize that not all brain training is the same. Look for products designed by real experts and subjected to peer-reviewed studies and be wary of those that spend more money on advertising than on research.

Books on neuroplasticity you might want to explore include:

  • Neuroplasticity (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series), by Moheb Costandi
  • The Power of Neuroplasticity, by Shad Helmstetter Ph.D.
  • Switch on Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health, by Dr. Caroline Leaf

One final note: healthy brain functioning is more important than ever because we have an aging population that is expected to live well into their later years. Although diminished brain function has long been presumed to be a natural and somewhat irreversible part of the aging process, that paradigm is now shifting due to an increased understanding of the brain’s amazing ability to grow and repair itself. We live in an exciting time, with the potential to live our lives with increased life-span along with better cognitive abilities!

What do you think?

  • Do you find the topic of neuroplasticity relevant to your own life?
  • Will you be pursuing more information on neuroplasticity?
  • What tips do you have for enhancing brain power?

Do you have a question, comment or an idea for an article? Email: [email protected]

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