We are all looking for ways to increase our brain power. And luckily, there are plenty of simple, inexpensive, and low-tech ways to help sharpen cognition.
“Low-tech, mentally stimulating activities, especially difficult ones, help our brains make new connections. The more connections we have, the more paths our brain has to get information where it needs to go. This can help improve cognition as a whole or in specific areas, depending on the activity, ”says Dr. Joel Salinas, behavioral neurologist and faculty member at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.
Low-tech brain training activities to try
Mentally stimulating activities give you a little, light cognitive facelift: they require a little work to process or produce information. These types of activities can include any of the following.
- Learn a language. Bilingual people have greater mental flexibility and agility and may have some protection against the risk of developing dementia, compared to people who speak a language. Learning a second language later in life can even delay cognitive decline. To get started, listen to language recordings, take an online course, or download an app such as Babbel or Duolingo.
- Listen or make music. Music can activate almost any region of the brain, including those involved emotion, memory and physical movement. Take advantage of this advantage by listening to new types of music or learning to play an instrument. Check out playlists from other countries or start learning to play an instrument by watching free videos on YouTube.
- Playing cards and board games. Games boost your ability to collect memories (if you play Trivial Pursuit, for example) or think strategically (if you play games like Monopoly or Checkers). Playing card games is useful because it requires you to use a number of mental skills at once: memory, visualization, and sequencing.
- Traveling. Visiting a new place exposes you to sights and sounds that improve brain plasticity, creating new connections in your brain. You may not be able to travel far during the pandemic, but just exploring nearby areas can lead to brain changes. Consider going to a city you’ve never visited before, or going to an outdoor park with unfamiliar terrain (maybe mountains or thick forests) to gain new perspectives.
- Watching plays, movies, concerts or visiting museums. Cultural activities stimulate the brain in several ways. While you cannot enjoy these activities indoors at this time, it may be possible to view them outdoors or online. Pick something that takes a little effort to understand, such as a Shakespearean play or a foreign film (try to understand what the characters are saying without reading the subtitles). If you are watching a concert, choose one with complex classical compositions. If you are viewing a museum exhibit online, try to retrieve the details the artist used to convey a message.
- Word puzzles. Working on word puzzles (such as crossword puzzles, Jumble, or Sudoku) has been shown to help people improve scores on attention, reasoning, and memory tests. Try a different type of puzzle every day (e.g. Sudoku one day, Jumble the next) and increase the difficulty level as the puzzles get easier.
Maximize the Benefits of Brain Training
Don’t limit yourself to just one mentally stimulating activity: some evidence suggests that the more of these activities you do, the lower your risk for mild cognitive impairment.
And combining mentally stimulating activities with exercise, learning, or socialization can have an even more powerful effect on cognition. For example:
- Exercise and dance while you listen to new music.
- Learn something by watching a video conference about an artist before seeing an exhibition of the person’s work.
- Socialize by playing an online board game with friends on a video call.
One thing you shouldn’t be doing: Think of these activities as brain training tasks. Enjoy them just because they are fun. They will improve your life and maybe eventually sharpen your cognition.