When was the last time you got stuck—I mean really STUCK—on a problem? Instead of being able to bring your mental muscles to bear on the challenge, did your mind feel tired or fatigued or just plain empty?
As it turns out, our brains function more like muscles than we realize. Consider a well-trained athlete: she might be able to trot six or eight miles in a stint and feel absolutely fabulous. But take that same athlete and have her run those same six miles backwards. The next day, everything will be sore from that buildup of lactic acid in those muscle groups that rarely get such activity.
The brain works in much the same way. While it is most certainly not a muscle, it behaves like one in that the more we work it and the more varied the challenges we can bring it, the more it will function at optimal levels when we most need it.
We regularly get our brains to perform repeat tasks through establishing patterns. Everything from speech to doing mathematics to driving a car to enjoying music is based on learning and using patterns. Problems that don’t fit our established patterns of thinking represent the greatest challenges. They also demand our greatest creative thinking.
So, how can we train our brains to more effectively and creatively address the unexpected? Try looking at some of your established patterns and changing them to work your brain:
- Brush your teeth, write the grocery list or dial the phone with the OTHER hand.
- Look up a new word and use it in conversation at least once each day.
- Listen to a new piece of music—really listen to it—from beginning to end without interruption.
- Do a puzzle; crossword, Sudoku and the good old Rubik’s Cube® are like brain pushups—the more, the better.
- Select a poem and memorize it. For more of a mental marathon, try a Shakespearean soliloquy.
For a more long-term commitment to brain fitness, try an activity that represents learning a whole new set of patterns for your brain, such as taking up a martial art or yoga. If you’re not that physical, you might give photography or cooking a try. Aside from the benefits of adding new experience and dimension to life, activities and hobbies like these, in time, result in better brain function.
Here are a few references for further reading:
- This article on Ehow offers five simple steps on how to strengthen your brain.
- If you are an educator, Dr. Kathie Nunley helps make connections between the latest research and classroom practice at www.brains.org.
Posit Science offers a complete Brain Fitness Program including software and games developed by Dr. Michael Merzenich.