Games and exercises for neuroplasticity
Everything you need to know about the games that boost your brain health.
Our brains allow us to read, write, drive, and daydream, yet few of us pay attention to their upkeep unless illness strikes. Neurologist Marwan Sabbagh has described the human brain as “the only object able to contemplate itself”—quite a mind-bending concept, you’ll agree!
One of the remarkable qualities of the brain is its lifelong ability to generate new connections, a process known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity, refers to the brain’s capability to change and adapt, and is a fundamental part of keeping cognitively fit.
How does neuroplasticity work?
Our brains house collections of neural pathways; the connections between different parts of the nervous system that transmit information in a fraction of a second. These connections are plastic, meaning that they can change as a result of our behaviours.
According to researchers, the three ingredients for keeping your brain “plastic” are challenge, novelty, and focused attention.
Improving neuroplasticity has proven to reduce the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s in older adults. There’s no age limit to improving brain plasticity. However, mental stimulation is an essential part of health no matter your age.
So, what should you do to improve your neuroplasticity?
1. Learn to juggle
Learning how to juggle is most probably not on most people’s to do lists. But it definitely fulfils the criteria of being a challenge, novelty, and requiring focused attention.
Studies showed that adults who learned how to juggle experienced an increase in the grey matter in the occipito-temporal cortex—and, more recently, that it also boosted white matter in the brain.
You don’t need to become a circus performer, though. It’s the learning experience that counts. Trying something like juggling is especially helpful in improving the link between what you see and how you move.
2. Learn a musical instrument
Research has shown that people who learn music at an early age have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) when they are older. MCI, which includes memory problems and word-finding difficulties, is often a precursor of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Similar to learning how to juggle, learning to play an instrument requires intense focus.
Once again, master musicians aren’t the only ones whose brains benefit. Practising for fun is more than enough to boost neuroplasticity.
3. Learning new skills
Learning how to juggle or play a musical instrument are only two of the many skills that keep your brain ticking over. Other activities include:
Learning a language
Improving vocabulary in your home language
Learning computer skills
The key when it comes to neuroplasticity is challenging your brain. Whether you’re learning new information or trying something practical like playing the piano, the cognitive exercise stimulates and strengthens your neural pathways.
4. Solving puzzles
It should come as no surprise that doing puzzles is good for your brain. There are a number of activities that fall into this category, such as:
Crossword puzzles Other word games, such as anagrams and word searches
Other mathematical puzzles, such as the missing square puzzle
Lateral thinking puzzles
Mechanical puzzles, such as jigsaws and the Rubik’s Cube
Different puzzles activate different parts of the brain. Making time for one or two every week can make a big difference in keeping your brain healthy.
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5. Mindfulness and meditation
Meditation might sound like the opposite of exercise, but the practice of sitting with your thoughts for a few minutes every day has been proven to boost neuroplasticity. Just like learning a language or any other new skill, meditating is a process and not a one-off event.
There are many ways of meditating, including:
Mindfulness meditation: allowing your thoughts to flow through your head without judgment Progressive relaxation meditation: consciously relaxing each part of your body, one by one Guided meditations: listening to a recording to guide you through various meditation practices
Loving-kindness meditation: focusing your mind on compassion for yourself and others
6. Brain training websites, apps, and programs
If you’re looking for structured ways to boost your brain, the internet has a huge selection of popular games and exercises to choose from. A few examples of apps and programs that support neuroplasticity include:
Luminosity – memory exercises, problem-solving games and more
Elevate – a variety of word games, mathematics games and more
Happy neurone – a more targeted and personalised program to train your brain
Not all online tools are supported by research, however, making it a good idea to incorporate other exercises, such as learning a new skill or practising meditation.
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7. Mnemonic devices
Mnemonic devices are used as a kind of memory training. There are many different types of mnemonics, including:
Music mnemonics, such as the alphabet song
Image mnemonics, which involve the use of a picture to “store” information
Expression or word mnemonics, such as “Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’s Father”, represent the sequence of flat keys in music (B flat, E flat, A flat etc.). The reverse represents the sequence of sharp keys: “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”.
Note organisation mnemonics, such as using flashcards to commit information to memory
8. Non-dominant hand exercises
When you try to remember information, your brain has to work a little harder. Mnemonic devices give you a framework to lean on.
Brushing your teeth, cutting your veggies or performing other actions with your non-dominant hand can stimulate your brain and strengthen neural pathways.
Known as “neurobics”, these exercises challenge your brain by demanding deliberate focus, rather than allowing you to run on autopilot.
Be sure to explore…
Whether you’re a crossword fan or like the idea of playing the cello, there’s sure to be something that can stimulate your neural pathways in an enjoyable way. Don’t feel afraid to try something new. If it’s not for you, try something else!
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