Apr 3, 2007
By: Alvaro Fernandez
Below you have a quick “email interview” we had yesterday with a journalist, it may help you navigate through this emerging field. (if you want some brain exercise right now, you can check our Top 50 Brain Teasers).
1. Why is it so important to exercise our brains?
Our brains are composed of different areas and functions, and we can strengthen them through mental exercise– or they get atrophied for lack of practice. The benefits are both short-term (improved concentration and memory, sustained mental clarity under stressful situations…), and long-term (creation of a “brain reserve” that help protect us against potential problems such as Alzheimer’s).
2. What are 1 or 2 things that are guaranteed “brain drains”?
- high-levels of anxiety and stress, that are guaranteed to distract us from our main goals and waste our limited mental energies.
- a very repetitive and routine-driven life, lacking in novelty and stimulation. We have brains to be able to learn and to adapt to new environments
The trick therefore, is to take on new challenges that are not way too difficult/ impossible, and learn how to manage stress to prevent anxiety from kicking-in.
3. What are three easy and quick mental exercises that everyone should be doing daily?
- For stress management: a 5-minute visualization, combining deep and regular breathings with seeing in our mind’s eye beautiful landscapes and/ or remembering times in our past when we have been successful at a tough task
- For short-term memory: try a series subtracting 7 from 200 (200 193 186 179…), or a series involving multiplication (2,3 4,6 6,9 8,12…) or exponential series (2 4 8 16 32 64…) the goal is not to be a math genius, simply to train and improve our short-term memory. Another way is to try and remember our friends telephone numbers.
- In general: try something different every day, no matter how little. Take a different route to work. Talk to a different colleague. Ask an unexpected question. Approach every day as a living experiment, a learning opportunity.
4. Are crossword puzzles and sudoku really as great for exercising our brain as they are reported to be? Why? And what about activities like knitting?
“Use it or lose it” may be misleading if we think that “It” is just one thing. The brain is composed of many different areas that focus on different things. Doing a crossword puzzle only activates a small part of the brain. The 3 key principles for good brain exercises are: novelty, variety and constant challenge. Not that different from cross-training our bodies.
The first time we do a crossword, or sudoku or knitting, that is great, because it forces us to learn. But when doing it is completely routine, the marginal benefit is very limited. Nowadays neuropsychologists do not recommend paper-based activities but computer-based brain exercise software programs, since they can provide a variety of new activities all the time, always tailored with a proper increasing level of challenge.
5. Any foods that increase our brain fitness?
The main principle is that foods that are good for our body are also good for our brain. omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and tuna, also have shown some benefits. There is contradictory data on Ginkgo biloba. The best “brain food” is, literally, mental stimulation.
6. Does physical exercise also exercise our brains?
In summary, physical exercise is important because it influences the rate of creation of new neurons in our brains. Mental exercise is important because it helps determine how those new neurons are used-and how long they survive. Stress can reduce both the creation of new neurons and their lifetime, so stress management is important too.
7. Maria writes in her comment below “I read with great interest this post on brain-stimulating activities. I was surprised that software with a changing challenge level was considered the best stimulation, since it’s a sedentary activity. Isn’t active learning, that combines physical and mental exercise, the best way to stimulate the brain? Thanks, and love your site!”
Answer: Great comment. We are talking about 2 different things here:
- Habits for long-term good brain health: we usually mention the 4 pillars of nutrition, physical exercise, stress management and mental stimulation. Yes, constant active learning provides great mental stimulation.
– Short-term Training and improvement of one specific area (memory,…): you need something more direct and well-targeted training experience such as that provided by a computer-based program, that assesses where you are today and “stretches” that specific capacity.
Both aspects are very important, in the same way that both walking often and going to the gym to do targeted workouts are complementary for physical fitness.
Hope that helps-let us know any other question!
Note: How can anyone take care of his or her brain when every week brings a new barrage of articles and studies which seem to contradict each other?
Do supplements improve memory? Do you need both physical and mental exercise –or is one of them enough? Why is managing stress so important to attention and memory? Which brain training approach, if any, is worth one’s time and money?
If you have these questions, check out this new book, The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness:
—Gloria Cavanaugh, former President & CEO of the American Society on Aging and founding Board member of the National Alliance for Caregiving
—Elizabeth Edgerly, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer, Alzheimer’s Association