I already do crosswords and sudoku. Do I need anything else?

SudokuHere is ques­tion sev­en of 25 from Brain Fit­ness 101: Answers to Your Top 25 Ques­tions. To down­load the com­plete ver­sion, please click here.

I already do cross­words and sudoku. Do I need any­thing else?

Key Points:

  • Recre­ation­al activ­i­ties like cross­word puz­zles, sudoku, bridge, chess, pok­er, etc. are all good for you and bet­ter than doing nothing.
  • BUT, recre­ation­al activ­i­ties are lim­it­ed in their range of men­tal cross-train­ing as well as dif­fi­cult to con­trol for both chal­lenge and novelty.

What you’re doing is fun and can’t hurt. But nor is it com­plete. Recent rec­om­men­da­tions made by a pan­el of experts review­ing a poll by the Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging stat­ed “A sin­gle activ­i­ty, no mat­ter how chal­leng­ing, is not suf­fi­cient to sus­tain the kind of men­tal acu­ity that vir­tu­al­ly every­one can achieve.”

Using your brain to solve cre­ative chal­lenges is excel­lent prac­tice and will help slow down the effects of aging. The lim­i­ta­tion with your cur­rent brain work­out pro­gram is that it does not have enough vari­ety or nov­el­ty to work out all your men­tal mus­cles. Have you ever seen the guys in the gym with the buff upper bod­ies sup­port­ed by lit­tle chick­en legs? The same thing can hap­pen in your brain. Just as you cross-train in your phys­i­cal fit­ness rou­tine (mix­ing car­dio with strength train­ing and flex­i­bil­i­ty) to get a bal­anced work­out, you need to cross-train your men­tal fit­ness to exer­cise your brain through motor coor­di­na­tion, emo­tion­al under­stand­ing, mem­o­ry, focus and atten­tion, sen­so­ry process­es, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lan­guage skills, and men­tal visualization.

Fur­ther­more, how can you gauge your improve­ment if you don’t have a way to mea­sure it? Using com­put­er soft­ware to give you a base­line score, work­out rou­tines for your brain, and fol­low up tests gives you a mea­sure of your improve­ment. So basi­cal­ly, right now you may be doing a high­ly focused work­out using lan­guage and mem­o­ry but with incon­sis­tent chal­lenge and lim­it­ed feed­back. A struc­tured pro­gram should give you assess­ment, nov­el­ty, and per­for­mance-based chal­lenge while still being fun. That men­tal stim­u­la­tion can dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase the rate of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, or the cre­ation of new neu­rons and the con­nec­tions between neurons.

A ran­dom­ized con­trolled dou­ble-blind study pub­lished in August 2006 “demon­strates that inten­sive, plas­tic­i­ty-engag­ing train­ing can result in an enhance­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tion in nor­mal mature adults.” Chal­leng­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion leads to learn­ing and neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. So keep doing cross­words and sudoku, espe­cial­ly if you enjoy them, but don’t neglect the rest of your brain!

Do activ­i­ties you enjoy, but be sure to do things that chal­lenge you with new and dif­fer­ent types of stimulation.

Fur­ther Reading


  1. James Davidson on January 10, 2007 at 6:45

    The Feb­ru­ary issue of Men’s Jour­nal arti­cle on pg. 48, titled “Your Brain on Video Games” showed a pic­ture of a brain in sev­er­al activ­i­ties as cap­tured with an MRI show­ing blood flows to it. There are sev­er­al activ­i­ties men­tioned but none such as the devel­op­ment of a 3‑D design of a build­ing with­in a land­scape, or the com­po­si­tion of a song, or some oth­er brain storm­ing ideation activ­i­ty. I am won­der­ing if such stud­ies have been done. One of the great­est plea­sures I can obtain is to devel­op a cre­ative design solu­tion to a prob­lem. It is almost as if I can stim­u­late my own endor­phen flow, any­time I want, just by think­ing of new ideas.

  2. Caroline on January 12, 2007 at 3:15

    Great com­ment James! Essen­tial­ly any chal­leng­ing men­tal work will be good for your mind. New activ­i­ties use more of your brain as you are learn­ing. And activ­i­ties that use many dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties (motor coor­di­na­tion, visu­al­iza­tion, spa­tial rota­tion, com­pu­ta­tion, etc.) use more of your brain. So, keep doing what you’re doing — it’s good!

    Check out the White­head Lec­tures on Cog­ni­tion, Com­pu­ta­tion, & Cre­ativ­i­ty or this PET study of cre­ativ­i­ty.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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