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Brain Games for the Weekend: One for each Cognitive Ability

When I give a pre­sen­ta­tion about brain health and fit­ness, there are always a few peo­ple who come tell me after­ward that they do cross­word puz­zles every­day. They heard that men­tal exer­cise is good for the brain so they are pleased and proud to report that they do the best they can to main­tain their brain func­tions. But are they really? What if I was a gym instruc­tor? Would the same peo­ple tell me proudly that to keep their whole body in shape they do biceps move­ments every­day, and that’s all they do? I DO feel like I was this gym instruc­tor when I hear the cross­word puz­zles claim! Solv­ing cross­word puz­zles repet­i­tively is not the best habit for two reasons.

First, the first cross­word puz­zles one did were truly stim­u­lat­ing but the mar­ginal value declines with rep­e­ti­tion. You may remem­ber that the role of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is to allow the brain to change in reac­tion to new events. Doing the same task over and over will not trig­ger neu­ro­plas­tic changes in your brain. This is why nov­elty is nec­es­sary when try­ing to exer­cise the brain. And nov­elty nec­es­sar­ily means chal­lenge. A new task will require more effort than some­thing a very famil­iar one.

Sec­ond, solv­ing cross­word puz­zles engages only a small por­tion of the brain: mostly some lan­guage and mem­ory retrieval areas. What about the rest of the brain? If you want a sharper brain, you need to exer­cise your whole brain, not just one or two func­tions. This means that you need to find a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent exer­cises or habits that will engage dif­fer­ent brain functions.

To get you started here is one brain teaser for each main cog­ni­tive abil­ity: mem­ory, atten­tion, lan­guage, exec­u­tive func­tions, etc. Enjoy!

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3 Responses

  1. Mrs. Life says:

    And here I thought cross­word puz­zles are pretty help­ful in boost­ing brain power. I think more than ever, I feel the need to exer­cise my brain. It’s been get­ting lagged by my fre­quent expo­sure to the Inter­net that I’m quite scared of how much it’ll detero­r­i­ate if I wont help stave off the effects.

  2. Nick Almond says:

    Unfor­tu­nately, we have come across a sim­i­lar prob­lem many times before, which is how do we define a cross­word. In the UK, we have three dif­fer­ent types of cross­words and our research has shown that cryp­tic cross­words are very effec­tive at improv­ing metacog­ni­tion which declines in healthy aging.

    Dr Mich­e­lon is right that doing a sim­ple cross­word every day will not stave off the cog­ni­tive decline seen in aging. How­ever, cryp­tic cross­words have a num­ber of dif­fer­ent facets which pro­mote dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive functions.

    It is true that the effect of cryp­tic cross­words was greater in par­tic­i­pants who were novices at attempt­ing such cross­words. How­ever, com­pared to a placebo activ­ity, even expert cross­word solvers show an increase in cog­ni­tive aware­ness when attempt­ing cryp­tic cross­words regularly.

    Although a range of cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties should be under­taken reg­u­larly, the cryp­tic cross­word is still the most effec­tive at increas­ing metacog­ni­tion in later life, but of course fur­ther research is always needed.

  3. Dr. Pascale Michelon says:

    Thanks for shar­ing these results with us Nick: Very inter­est­ing! What are the ref­er­ences for the stud­ies you are mentioning?

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