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!


  1. Mrs. Life on November 24, 2010 at 7:39

    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 on November 30, 2010 at 4:12

    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 on November 30, 2010 at 9:55

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

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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