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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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