Train your brain

2014-01-21 15:34

How to tackle the new year with a sharp mind

Like your body, your brain needs regular exercise to stay in peak condition – that’s if you believe the latest research that claims you can counteract the natural decline of your brain by putting it through its own set of exercises.

It all has to do with neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to keep changing.

Your brain is flexible!

Scientists used to think of the brain as a static organ but experts have come to realise it is always changing. Neuroplasticity is the term used to refer to this constant change and the science looks at how the brain changes, the ways in which it changes and what causes these changes.

Plasticity can be positive or negative – brain damage due to injury or a stroke, for example, can cause changes in the brain that have negative results. Brain cells also die off naturally with age.

The good news is that positive plasticity can be applied to counteract the negative results of a brain injury, stroke or ageing.

Neuroplasticity has given rise to a multi-million-dollar brain exercise industry. Companies such as Lumosity, Jungle Memory, Nintendo and CogniFit develop neuroscientific puzzles and games and promise that regular brain exercises such as these can make you smarter and sharper and help you think more clearly.

Play yourself smarter

Try these apps and websites to strengthen your brain ‘muscles’.

1. Lumosity

This website and app has more than 40 million users and is a complete ‘gym’ for your brain. There are more than 40 games and you can play for free three times per day, but you’ll have to register and pay a fee for the rest.

2. Mind Games

This free app for Android devices consists of standardised tests that are suitable for all ages. There are 13 different games that take only two to three minutes to complete, so it’s easy to fit a quick game or two into your day.

3. Critical Thinking University Think-O-Meter

This app is for those who want a serious brain workout. A scenario is described and you have to answer a series of questions that test your ability to separate facts from assumptions, focus on relevant information and think critically.

4. Fit Brains Trainer

This app takes you through a series of exercises designed to focus on your weaknesses and is like a video game with different storylines and levels. The difficulty level of each game automatically gets adjusted to your level and becomes more difficult as you progress.

5. Brain Trainer Special

These exercises help with memory, attention and speed. The games require you to memorise a series of letters and phone numbers and solve mathematical problems. It’s free and fun.

But does it really work?

So far the jury is still out as far as scientific proof of the success of brain exercises goes. A study conducted in 2008 implied that you can raise your IQ by one point for every hour of memory exercises, but a more controlled study that tried to duplicate the findings discovered no proof of an increase in intelligence.

British neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen monitored 11 000 people during a six-week period of computer-based brain exercises and found that while people became better at the games and exercises, they did not become more intelligent as such.

Do it at home

You don’t have to get an app or visit a website to give your brain a bit of extra stimulation. Experts believe you can also make a difference by doing some ‘ordinary’ things at home.

1. Watch nature documentaries

In a recent study people who regularly watch doccies fared better in language tests than people who do brain exercises. They also had lower stress levels and better quality of life.

2. Flip pics upside down

Turning the photos on your desk upside down when you start losing focus immediately sharpens the concentration, because your brain automatically raises an alarm and will  pay more attention to small details.

3. Swop hands

If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to comb your hair, brush your teeth and perform other small activities throughout the day – and vice versa. Doing this heightens the level of creativity in the brain.

4. Think out loud

Talk aloud to yourself, no matter what your family or colleagues say. It helps improve your short-term memory – and people who talk to themselves are also more inclined to find things they’ve misplaced.

5. Write letters

This stimulates ‘personal’ creativity – creativity in everyday activities such as cooking, gardening, etc – which contributes

to life enrichment and satisfaction.

These five general principles contribute to brain health.

1. Get exercise

According to Donald Strauss, a Canadian neuropsychiatrist, aerobic exercise is the most important thing you can do to keep your brain healthy. Regular exercise increases capillary development in the brain, leading to better blood supply and more nutrients and oxygen to the brain.

2. Eat healthy

A healthy body houses a healthy mind. Don’t overeat, and choose foods high in antioxidants, which neutralise the free radicals that break down neurons in the brain.

3. Calm down

Calmness, rest, enough sleep and regular laughter are all necessary for good brain health. Chronic stress is bad for your brain cells. Make time for calming activities such

as yoga or meditation and relax by having

a belly laugh. A good night’s rest doubles your capacity for creative problem-solving.

 4. Be social

Strong social ties are associated with a longer life expectancy. Plan regular social activities – it will also give you something to look forward to – and consider volunteering at a charity organisation.

 5. Stimulate your brain

Brain gymming can include any activity that stimulates the brain. Crossword puzzles, word games, board games and even video games can all be beneficial. Read a crime novel, attend a course or start a hobby.

Speak or read in a second language – or in your mother tongue if you’re more used to reading in English, for example.

A head for business

Big shots in the business world also realise that stimulated brains deliver better results. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is notorious for sending complaint emails from clients to staff with just a question mark in the subject line. Amazon staff know that if they see a question mark in their inbox, it’s a direct challenge to find the cause of the problem asap, explain it and come up with suggestions to resolve the issue.

Did you know?

A recent study showed good oral hygiene reduces the risk of developing dementia.

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