In our often over-scheduled lives, it’s easy to forget that keeping a clear, sharp mind can help us to go farther in achieving our goals. The human brain is our most complex organ and it’s responsible for roughly 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day (1). Our brains rely on the patterns and routines we’ve set as its means to function but similar to our other muscles and organs, it can be prone to atrophy if not continually taken care of.
Declines in cognitive retention and power occur for numerous different reasons with the most common being illness, inflammation and poor diet (2). Common issues such as brain “fog” and stress induced forgetfulness are never good things to have. Stress can have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time due to how it depletes our energy sources and how it simultaneously stifles multiple neurological functions (3).
The brain’s ability to minimize and repair damage in its pathways can weaken from these factors as well as from aging. A healthy diet that includes plenty of vitamins and minerals from vegetables, antioxidants from fruits, healthy fats and the correct supplements supports brain health.
The brain is primarily comprised of water and lipids (a type of fat). Essential fatty acids (EFAs such as omega-3s) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and they’re essential to maintaining brain health (4).
A diet rich in EFAs and DHA has been shown to help sustain brain power but there are additional exercises we can do that will force our brains to work. You can’t make yourself smarter, but you can make yourself more efficient and after all, that’s the desired effect.
Working our brains to create new neurological pathways also strengthens those that we already have. The right brain and left brain are responsible for different things and keeping our brains sharp means that both sides engage. And so to a certain extent, we can increase brain muscle intensity.
Easy Exercises to Keep Your Brain Sharp
Choose to Complete Tasks in Opposites
Dominance means that one side is naturally stronger and more adept. For a task like this, pay attention to how you choose to engage. When you lift weights, for example, do you prefer a barbell over individual weights? If the answer is yes, it could be partly because one side of your body is more comfortable with the idea of both sides engaged. You know one side is weaker than the other because you feel it.
If you’re right hand dominant, use your left hand to take notes or to brush your teeth. Your handwriting might be sloppier but your mind will have perked up from the need to focus and get it done. This is a sensory input exercise and while it does rely on concentration and coordination, it’s also beneficial for the different muscles involved, aside from our brains.
Make Taste Intervene for Sight
You’re familiar with how something — take vanilla — smells or tastes, right? That’s common ground for you so it doesn’t create new neurological pathways. Eat or drink with your eyes closed and you’ll notice a slight shift in how it tastes because your brain will be working to figure out what it is. It might not take more than a few seconds, but your senses will immediately start to kick in so that the stimulus can be determined. The olfactory system begins to make new emotional connections if a constant change in taste or smell becomes a habit.
Switch Up Your Routine
This could mean your commute home, your workout or the morning dog walk and what it does is force your brain to make new connections in order to finish the task. Again, it’s a variation of a sensory input. No one likes getting stuck in traffic or extending their commute, but the variety can create new stimulus and you might learn a thing or two about your neighborhood.
Socialize in a Simple Way
Social media has helped us make it easy to forget that human interaction is linked to our body language. We keep and maintain certain habits hoping that people will perceive our public selves in a positive way. As spontaneous as it is, it isn’t all that spontaneous. Instead, try going to new place alone, like a coffee shop or supermarket, and say something nice to someone for a short interaction and for a change of pace. Your cognitive abilities (and manners) will work to engage the environment and you’ll get a nice burst of dopamine from being friendly.
Play a Game
This is an easy one. A newspaper crossword, an internet version of “Scrabble” or even just Tic-Tac-Toe will distract you from whatever stress you might have and it’ll force your brain to dive into its archives to answer the questions. Video games and apps rely on visual stimuli and activating the reward centers of our brains in order to keep you coming back. These games can also help you to temporarily relax from whatever stress you’re undergoing. A bonus to playing games is that some can help you learn new things.
Use Sound as an Emotional Getaway
Music can create calming or excitable feelings and it actually does produce hormones (5). Build on that by paying attention to sound and/or listening to new ones. Sound is objective so it forces our brains to strengthen its synapses by associating it with neurological pathways already set (6). The effect can also occur with such things as the voice of an old friend or a song from childhood. Emotional responses (specifically occurring in the hippocampus) can help to alleviate stress and calm our nervous systems (7).
Approach Existing Relationships in New Ways
Just as with our muscles, routine stagnates progress. Our cognitive abilities with our existing relationships are rooted in the personalities and expectations we have with these people. There’s a saying that you become similar to the five people you spend the most time with. Vary up your routine and do something different to learn about them and to also learn about yourself and how you socialize. You might be surprised to see that you need to adjust in certain situations or that you like to try new things, and of course you’ll have strengthened your relationships with your friends and family.
One of the most positive and newly discovered aspects of a good night’s sleep is that it “cleans” out those little, unimportant things saved from the day (8). Cerebrospinal fluid and the glyph cells clear out toxins. Research has shown that this process occurs more efficiently and undisrupted during the sleep-wake cycle. Block out blue light (cell phones, computers), make the room dark and count sheep if you have to. Melatonin regulates sleep and it’s also important for our muscles to rest undisrupted. The annoyances that aren’t meant to be carried over into tomorrow are literally wiped out as we sleep and our brains can start fresh and think clearly.
As with our organs, the brain relies on use and an increase in stimuli in order to continue growing. It’s (arguably) our most important organ and paradoxically what we probably think the least about needing to work out. You can’t do much tomorrow if you can’t concentrate on today, so it’s important to remember to increase sensory stimuli, as this helps to diminish and prevent atrophy. Add extra things to this list, including an anti-inflammatory diet and the proper supplements, so that you and your brain can focus and get through the days ahead.
- “Brain Trivia.” Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. 2016.
- “Stress, Food and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge.” Kiecolt-Glasar, JK. 2010.
- “Effects of Aging and Stress on Hippocampal Structure and Function.” Miller DB, O’Callagahan JP. 2003.
- “Essential Fatty Acids and Human Brain.” Cheng CY, DS Ke. Chen JY. 2009.
- “Anatomically Distinct Dopamine Release During Anticipation and Experience of Peak Emotion of Music.” Salimpoor Valorie, Benovoy Mitchel. 2010.
- “Perception Lecture Notes: Auditory Pathways and Sound Localization.” Heeger David. 2006.
- “Music: A Link Between Cognition and Emotion.” Krumhansl, Carol, 2002.
- “Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain.” Xie H, Kang H, et. Al.