Giving the brain new experiences will keep it healthier when combined with physical senses—vision, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—with emotional “sense” stimulates more connections between different brain areas, causes nerve cells to produce natural brain nutrients that dramatically help memory, and makes surrounding cells stronger and more resistant to the effects of aging. Here are some mini mental workout exercises that can possibly prevent memory loss and sharpen your mind.
Switch around your morning activities. Brain imaging studies show that novel tasks exercise large areas of the cortex, indicating increased levels of brain activity in several distinct areas. This activity declines when the task becomes routine and automatic. Brain exercise: Get dressed after breakfast, walk the dog on a new route, or change your TV or news station. Even watching a kids’ program like Sesame Street, for example, may arouse the brain to notice how much of what you take for granted is explored in depth by children. Turn familiar objects upside down. Literally.
When you look at things right-side up, your left “verbal” brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention elsewhere. When they’re upside down, your right brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture. Brain exercise: Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.
Switch seats at the table because in most families, everyone has his or her “own” seat, but your brain benefits from new experiences. Brain exercise: Switch seats to change whose position you occupy, who you relate to, your view of the room, and even how you reach for salt and pepper.
Play with spare change because our brains regularly rely on visual cues to distinguish between objects, using touch to identify subtly different things increases activation in cortical areas that process tactile information and leads to stronger synapses. (Similarly, adults who lose their sight learn to distinguish Braille letters because their brain devotes more pathways to processing fine touch.) Brain exercise: Place a cup full of coins in your car’s drink holder. While at a stoplight, try to determine the denominations by feel alone. You can also put coins in your pocket, and identify them when you stop at a corner.
Scan at the supermarket. Stores are designed to have the most profitable items at eye level, and when you shop you don’t really see everything there. Stop in any aisle and look at the shelves, top to bottom. If there’s something you’ve never seen before, pick it up, read the ingredients, and think about it. You don’t have to buy it to benefit; you’ve broken your routine and experienced something new.
Do an art project in a group. Art activates the nonverbal and emotional parts of the cerebral cortex. When you create art, you draw on parts of your brain interested in forms, colors, and textures, as well as thought processes very different from the logical, linear thinking that occupies most of your day. Ask each person to draw something associated with a specific theme like a season, an emotion, or a current event.
Make more social connections during your day. Scientific research has repeatedly proved that social deprivation has severe negative effects on overall cognitive abilities. Thirsty? Buy a drink from a person rather than a vending machine. Need gas? Pay the clerk at the counter rather than just swiping your credit card at the pump.
Read differently. When we read aloud or listen to reading, we use very different brain circuits than when we read silently to ourselves. Read aloud with your partner or a friend, alternating roles of reader and listener. It may be slow to get through a book, but as a bonus you’ll spend quality time together.
Eating unfamiliar foods your olfactory system can distinguish millions of odors by activating unique combinations of receptors in your nose. There’s a direct link to the emotional center of your brain, so new odors may evoke unexpected feelings and associations. Choose a cuisine unfamiliar to you, and browse the variety of novel vegetables, seasonings, and packaged goods. Ask storekeepers how to prepare some of the more unfamiliar items.