On top of a healthy diet and regular exercise, there are ways to give your brain its own workout routine — without emptying your wallet. Although brain training software is everywhere these days, it has yet to show any significant neurological benefits for older adults. In a 2014 review published in PLOS Medicine, Australian researchers looked at 52 different studies on computerized cognitive training on a total 4,885 participants and found that the games are not particularly effective in improving brain performance. Experts recommend sticking to brain training that involves real-world activities. Exercises to strengthen brain function should offer novelty and challenge. "Almost any silly suggestion can work," says David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "Drive home via a different route; brush your teeth with your opposite hand. The brain works through associations [which is why it's easier to memorize lyrics to a song than it is to try and remember the same words without music], so the more senses you involve the better." You need to work on your own neuroplasticity, you will hear often. But what is this mysterious neuroplasticity? Defined as the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. Brain reorganization takes place by mechanisms such as "axonal sprouting" in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged axons can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function. For example, if one hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the intact hemisphere may take over some of its functions. The brain compensates for damage in effect by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity. Neuroplasticity sometimes may also contribute to impairment. For example, people who are deaf may suffer from a continual ringing in their ears (tinnitus), the result of the rewiring of brain cells starved for sound. For neurons to form beneficial connections, they must be correctly stimulated. Neuroplasticity is also called brain plasticity or brain malleability.
Now let's see some practical examples of what we can do using only our brain, trying to not outsource the activity using some tablet, phone or laptop:
- Test your recall. Make a list — of grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind and memorize it. An hour or so later, see how many items you can recall. Make items on the list as challenging as possible for the greatest mental stimulation.
- Let the music play. Learn to play a musical instrument or join a choir. Studies show that learning something new and complex over a longer period of time is ideal for the aging mind.
- Do math in your head. Figure out problems without the aid of pencil, paper, or computer; you can make this more difficult — and athletic — by walking at the same time.
- Take a cooking class. Learn how to cook a new cuisine. Cooking uses a number of senses: smell, touch, sight, and taste, which all involve different parts of the brain.
- Learn a foreign language. The listening and hearing involved stimulates the brain. What’s more, a rich vocabulary has been linked to a reduced risk for cognitive decline.
- Create word pictures. Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then try and think of any other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
- Draw a map from memory. After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of the area; repeat this exercise each time you visit a new location.
- Challenge your taste buds. When eating, try to identify individual ingredients in your meal, including subtle herbs and spices.
- Refine your hand-eye abilities. Take up a new hobby that involves fine-motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, painting, assembling a puzzle, etc.
- Learn a new sport. Start doing an athletic exercise that utilizes both mind and body, such as yoga, golf, or tennis.
Bonus: My favorite kind of exercise deriving from the mental training called Kuji-Kiri, part of the mythical path of Ninjutsu, the art of being a Ninja. Each day of the week we will focus on one of our senses, trying to reach a new level of subtlety and refinement. One day for hearing, one for tasting and so on. We will do this until the training will become a second nature, and only then we will start to focus on two senses at once. After a while, when this is comfortable enough, we will focus on three senses at once, like for example hearing, smelling, seeing, but we will need to have our attention on this for the most part of that 24 hours period. Than four, and finally five. When we will integrate all our five senses to our voluntary attention we are reaching the mastery level of this exercise, which can be done in two to twenty years, depending on our innate talents. (I need to tell you that i know only one person to reach the five at the time level, and while i have some friends to focus on two of them at once, i and still practicing one sense at a time.) It is not easy but it will enrich your life, making you aware of perfumes, tastes or sounds that you will usually oversee. In time, you will become a super-human, theoretically speaking (because anyone can do it, but few will persevere).
Good luck with your training