Let’s get straight to the point: the best things you can do for your brain are – regular physical exercise, eat healthily, avoid smoking and alcohol (both are known to damage the brain), and other toxins and injuries, maintain a healthy weight, and remain socially and brain active. In other articles, we have discussed how to maintain physical health.
Many people enjoy crosswords and sudoku puzzles and swear by them as a means to keep their brains active. There is no doubt that such puzzles do require mental effort. Is that the type of mental activity that keeps our brains fit and healthy?
Let’s conduct a thought experiment
We have invented a form of brain therapy. The mechanism to preserve the brain is to engage in a task that requires dexterity, agility, physical activity, as well as memory. Sounds good so far. We have called it ‘Shoe lace tying therapy.’ To have a brain work out, all we have to do it to tie, and untie our shoelaces 100 times a day.
How likely do you think that is to preserve your brain fitness in to advanced old age?
Of course, it is a farcical suggestion, and a pseudo therapy. Why? It is using the same small parts of the brain over and over again. Yes, your shoe lace tying skills will be kept in good order, but, that does very little for the whole brain.
Alas, the same seems to be the case for crosswords and sudoku, and similar types of pastimes. The frequent repetition of the same skill keeps those skills current, but it does nothing to maintain wider brain fitness.
To date, that is what the research shows: crosswords and sudoku puzzles do not protect against the brain deterioration that results in the various forms of dementia.
Superficially, that seems to contradict one of the key pieces of evidence in brain fitness research: those who are brain active are 2.7 times less likely to develop forms of dementia. ‘Surely,’ any reasonable person may protest, ‘engaging in crosswords and sudoku puzzles is evidence of being brain active.’ Yes, superficially it does appear that way. Let’s look more closely.
If we were to compare the brain activity of learning a language to completing puzzles, what is likely to be happening in the brain?
- Crossword puzzle: each clue triggers an existing memory of a word.
- Language learning: vast numbers of new words have to be remembered.
- Crossword puzzle: the language structure of the clue has to be interpreted
- Language learning: new language structures have to be learned, and practised.
- With puzzles existing memories are recalled.
- With any form of learning, new memories have to be created.
- What does that mean for the brain?
- Crossword puzzle: existing brain networks are accessed.
- Language learning: new brain networks have to be created.
Let’s introduce another health concept that seems highly relevant. What happens to any muscle in your body if you stop using it? It atrophies; it wastes away.
What if the brain is our learning organ? What would happen to our learning organ if we didn’t use it?
It would atrophy; waste away. What is most likely to happen to brain-inactive people? Their brain is more likely to waste away.
If that is the case, and right now, it seems the most plausible of all the theories, it makes sense to preserve our learning organ by using it as a learning organ.
Some people will say words to the effect of, ‘Well I learn how to do a new crossword every day; that’s learning.’
There may be a small amount of learning, but as we discussed before, most activity is memory recall not memory formation.
What happens to our heart and lungs if we make increased demands of them? Over time they get more capable of satisfying those demands. The body produces growth hormone (among a host of others). Over time that level of growth hormone seems to have protective properties for the whole body.
The brain does the same. When we engage in learning the amount of neural growth hormone increases; it is necessary to lay down the new brain infrastructure. It seems likely that the increased levels of neural growth hormone in the brain, as a result of the learning demands made of it, protect all of the brain.
That would explain why brain-active people are 2.7 less likely to develop the dementias.
If brain deterioration is caused by atrophy of the learning organ, what kinds of learning could have the greatest benefit?
The steeper the learning curve, the more brain growth will be required. What will give you the steepest learning curve? The skills which are least developed; the things people say: ‘I am no good at that.’ Why is the learning curve steeper? Because starting at low base requires more to be learned to acquire the skills.
If you were terrible at languages, huge benefit is to be gained by learning a new one. I know several people who thought they were terrible at languages at school, who went on to learn new languages and are now fluent.
If you thought you were ‘not musical,’ learning to play an instrument would be great for your brain, because there is such a huge learning curve; massive brain growth required to reach competence with any instrument, including the human voice.
Recently I met a retired headteacher (on one of my lecture tours), and he had, for life, thought of himself as ‘not musical.’ He has learned to play his instrument so well that he now performs professionally as part of a band. The brain growth he must have experienced would have been massive.
A ‘retired’ professor I know, is learning to code robots, in addition to taking on substantial public service duties, and, continues to make advances at the cutting-edge of their field, and, of course, exercises regularly. (You know who you are, and thank you for being such a great role model to so many.)
If you want to engage in brain health workouts that will maximise your chances of maintaining a healthy brain, set yourself a learning goal. When you reach it, set another, and when you reach that, set another still.
In addition to maintaining physical health, in my view, the best way to maintain your brain health is to engage in daily learning; to give your brain an ongoing workout.
What skills and knowledge will you choose to acquire as part of your brain fitness programme?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.