Engaging in complex and challenging mental activity can literally change your brain. Doing so has been shown to grow up to three times more new brain cells, four times more new connections and even change the size of some parts of the brain.
What’s even more amazing is that a lot of these changes happen predominantly in the memory centre of our brain. A part called the ‘hippocampus’. So it’s not surprising then, that one of the first things we’ll notice improve when we engage in challenging mental activity is our memory.
And research has looked at what real outcomes this has for people. One study gave people memory training, mental speed training and reasoning training for 10 weeks, and found that people noticed a real significant difference in their lives. They said that they found things like shopping, making meals and managing finances easier. AND, these effects lasted five years later. So 10 weeks of mental training lasted for the long-term (Willis et al., 2006).
So what can you do?
Challenge yourself mentally! If you go to the shops, and only have a few items on your list, try not to use a list. If you meet someone new, and you usually struggle with names, really make the effort to try and remember their name. When you’re managing your daily finances, try to do the maths in your head or on paper rather than on a calculator.
All of the little things help. The more diverse and complex they are, the better!
Learn new things. Learning has been shown to be one of the best things for growing new brain cells and forming new connections. Again, these changes happen mostly in our memory part of the brain (hippocampus). Try and learn one new thing everyday if you can. Even better, learn a new language. This is great for inducing neuroplasticity. Teach yourself to be a bit more tech savvy – on your computer or phone. Read books, and learn things that way. Learn to juggle! Even three months of this has been shown to increase our brain size (Draganski et al., 2004).
Have purpose, and be productive. This is great for our brain, and improves our cognition. If you’re not working, try and get involved in volunteering. But not only this, even completing projects around the house is good for us! Get to Bunnings and look for some inspiration.
Set yourself some goals, and work towards them. If you’re not good at doing things for yourself, why not give yourself to others. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Try new things. Doing different things, and putting yourself out of your comfort zone, is good for us. If it’s challenging, great, but new things nonetheless stimulate and keep our brains active. On your daily walk, why not try a different route. Take up an art class. Get a pet! Or how about, try and brush your teeth with your opposite hand. You’ll be surprised how difficult it is! *NB not endorsed for teeth health.
Ultimately, a range of mental activity is best for us. Remember though, if the point of all of this is to lead a happier and healthier life, then there’s no point compromising your happiness to do any of this. First and foremost, make sure you enjoy yourself. If you can incorporate some of these other things as well, then great! Make sure it’s sustainable.