You’re no doubt familiar with the adage “use it or lose it,” and although it applies to a number of different situations, it’s particularly relevant when it comes to your mental acuity.
So many of us just tune out and shut down when not actively engaged in the minutiae of our daily work lives, choosing to veg out in front of the TV or just stare at our phones or tablets for hours on end.
Unless we’re multitasking by doing things like knitting lace or playing mind-teasing games on those screens, we’re not doing ourselves any favors when it comes to keeping our brains active and engaged.
Many studies have shown that, much like muscles, our brains atrophy if not kept properly engaged, potentially leading to earlier onset of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other mental illnesses.
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat mental lethargy and deterioration by engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as the ones listed below.
6. Learn A New Language (Or Practice The Ones You Already Know)
Scientists are constantly delving into the way our brains work, and recent studies have shown that bilingual people who use their second language on a daily basis can postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In the group of patients who participated in the study, half of them were bilingual, while the other half spoke only one language. The polyglots’ symptoms developed an average of five years later than those who only spoke English, and their diseases also progressed more slowly.
If you already speak a second language (or more!) but haven’t spoken it for a while, you might wish to consider finding some friends who speak that tongue so you can practice it with them. Another option is to pick up some simple books in that language so you can improve your vocabulary; just make sure to choose books that you’re actually interested in reading so they’ll hold your attention.
If you’ve only ever spoken English, fear not! There are plenty of online resources that allow you to dive in and learn almost any language from Arabic to Welsh from the comfort of your own home. Websites like Duolingo, Memrise, and Livemocha are great, and you can always try to take a trip to a place where your chosen language is spoken so you can immerse yourself in the culture as well. (As a side note, one of the best ways to learn a new language is to date someone who speaks it, so keep that in mind!)
5. Play A Musical Instrument
When you play a musical instrument, many parts of your brain and nervous system work together, so it doesn’t just increase your mental acuity, but also helps maintain the proper functioning of the nerves in your spinal cord and extremities.
Playing a musical instrument improves your reaction time, and engages numerous senses. You not only have to move your hands and fingers to coax out a tune, but you’re also listening to what you’re playing to determine whether it sounds right or not.
So, if you’re keen to strengthen your sensory neural pathways, pick up an instrument and learn how to play it! Guitar and piano are both great to start with, as you can plug a pair of headphones into a keyboard and learn to play simple tunes without enraging your friends and neighbors, while learning to play a guitar is a lot easier (and non-offensive) than a violin or flute.
That said, if you’ve always really wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, do it! Your brain will thank you even if your partner and children don’t.
4. Read More
The average person today doesn’t read anything longer than a tweet or a text message, hence why so many articles have the “TL;DR” (too long;didn’t read) synopsis available. We’ve all been forced to multitask so much that many of us have difficulty concentrating on just one thing for any length of time, and that includes reading books.
It’s important to be able to focus properly, and both novels and nonfiction books require our undivided attention. Fiction requires us to keep track of a number of different characters and their motivations, whilst nonfiction fills our minds with information that we’ll need to process to understand.
Any book you read will rekindle your vocabulary, and will be blissfully devoid of netspeak acronyms. OMFG.
Sudoku, crosswords, word searches… anything that forces you to concentrate in order to create a solution to a problem engages your mind and sharpens your acuity, and can also be a hell of a lot of fun in the process.
There are puzzles that appeal to just about everyone, so whether you’re interested in word games, brain teasers, or 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles featuring adorable little kittens, you’ll find one just for you.
2. Knit (Especially Intricate Work Like Lace, Cables, Or Fair Isle)
Knitting, which requires a person to concentrate on counted stitches and various techniques in order to achieve a pattern, is one of the best activities for improving brain plasticity.
Basic knitting, which is just knitting and purling, is great for relaxing after a long day, but it’s not going to create new neural connections; you need to be focused on a complex project like lace or color work. The combination of tactile motion with counted stitches is ideal for engaging multiple areas of the brain at once. It’s fine motor control combined with math, color recognition, pattern work… and you end up with a really cool item when you’re done.
One of the most important things to consider when taking up a project with the goal of improving brain health is “seriousness of purpose”; basically, how serious and interested you are in this endeavor. If you’re knitting a scarf “just because,” you’re not going to be as serious about it as if you’re knitting a baby blanket for a friend who’s expecting. Have an end date established so you can create a work-back schedule to adhere to, and try to work on it every day.
1. Take Care Of Yourself (Exercise, Get Decent Sleep, And Eat Well)
It goes without saying that getting plenty of exercise and eating a healthy diet are important for overall health and wellbeing, but how many of us actually put in the effort to really care for our health on a daily basis?
Choosing a salad once a week instead of a big greasy bucket of deep-fried “stuff” really doesn’t cut it; every meal should be one that nourishes you on a cellular level and isn’t just “filler.”
Aim for nutrient density with good fats (like omega3 fatty acids), and skip the processed, chemical-laden crap. Your brain needs healthy fats in order to function properly, and reducing processed foods is a good idea for your entire body.
If in doubt, consider following a Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to slow down cognitive decline and increase the volume of the brain.
Regular exercise will increase blood and oxygen flow to your brain tissues and will keep the nerves in your extremities functioning well. Studies have suggested that your level of activity impacts the risk and rate of frontal lobe atrophy (brain shrinkage).
Poor sleep, on the other hand, has shown a correlation with loss of brain volume, although it is not yet clear whether there is a causation, or which direction it goes in if there is. But suffice to say, getting a good night’s sleep leaves you feeling rejuvenated and more motivated to engage in some of the other activities on this list.
So… the next time you feel like you’re having trouble concentrating, or you just don’t feel as mentally sharp as you think you should, take stock of your recent lifestyle choices and be honest with yourself about what you could improve. Then turn off Netflix, put down your phone, pick up a book or crossword puzzle, play some Mozart, and you’ll feel your brainmeat kick into higher gear in no time.
How many of these activities do you engage in? Leave a comment below to let us know.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.