Simple, low-cost, low-tech brain training

We’re all looking for ways to boost our brain power. And fortunately, there are plenty of simple, low-cost, low-tech ways to help sharpen cognition.

“Low-tech, mentally stimulating activities, especially ones that are challenging, help our brains create new connections. The more connections we have, the more paths our brain has to get information to where it needs to go. This can help with improving cognition overall or in specific areas, depending on the activity,” says Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and faculty member of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.

Low-tech brain training activities to try

Mentally stimulating activities make you do a little cognitive light lifting: they require some work to process or produce information. These kinds of activities can include any of the following.

  • Learning a language. Bilingual people have greater mental flexibility and agility, and may have some protection from the risk of developing dementia, compared to people who speak one language. Learning a second language later in life may even delay cognitive decline. To get started, listen to language recordings, take an online class, or download an app such as Babbel or Duolingo.
  • Listening to or making music. Music can activate almost all regions of the brain, including those involved with emotion, memory, and physical movement. Get in on this benefit by listening to new kinds of music, or by learning how to play an instrument. Check out playlists from other countries, or start learning to play an instrument by watching free videos on YouTube.
  • Playing card and board games. Games strengthen your ability to retrieve memories (if you play Trivial Pursuit, for example) or think strategically (if you play games like Monopoly or checkers). Playing card games is helpful 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 enhance brain plasticity, forming new connections in your brain. You might not be able to travel far during the pandemic, but simply exploring areas nearby may produce brain changes. Consider driving to a town you’ve never visited before, or going to an outdoor park with unfamiliar terrain (perhaps mountains or thick forests) to gain new perspectives.
  • Watching plays, films, concerts, or museum tours. Cultural activities stimulate the brain in many ways. While you may not be able to enjoy these activities indoors right now, it might be possible to see them outside or online. Choose something that requires a little effort to understand it, for example a Shakespearean play or a foreign film (try to figure out what the characters are saying without reading the subtitles). If you’re watching a concert, choose one with complex classical compositions. If you’re looking at an online museum exhibit, try to pick up on the details the artist used to convey a message.
  • Word puzzles. Working on word puzzles (such as a crossword, Jumble, or Sudoku) has been shown to help people improve their scores on tests of attention, reasoning, and memory. Try a different kind of puzzle each day (for example, a Sudoku one day, a Jumble the next), and increase the level of difficulty as puzzles get easier.

Maximizing benefits of brain training

Don’t limit yourself to one mentally stimulating activity: some evidence suggests that the more of these activities you do, the more your risk for mild cognitive impairment will decrease.

And combining mentally stimulating activities with exercise, learning, or socializing may have an even more potent effect on cognition. For example:

  • Get physical and dance while you listen to new music.
  • Learn something by watching a video lecture about an artist before checking out an exhibit of the person’s work.
  • Socialize by playing a board game online with friends during a video call.

One thing you shouldn’t do: think of these activities as brain training chores. Just enjoy them because they’re fun. They’ll enhance your life, and they may wind up sharpening your cognition to boot.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Proverbs 3:1-2 NIV

The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin. Proverbs 10:8 NIV

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. Psalm 119:10 NIV

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. Psalm 31:24 NIV

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12 NIV

I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. Psalm 119:7 NIV

Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. Psalm 119:2 NIV

Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Mark 11:23 NIV

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NIV | speaking prayer

But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. Joshua 22:5 NIV

Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. Psalm 119:111 NIV

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