Get Smart: 6 Brain-Boosting Activities to Add to Your Day

Monday, October 17, 2016

I have two uncanny skills: catching items that come flying my way, and remembering names. I take a certain pride in the latter, and can even recall the names of people whom I haven’t met but who played a part in an anecdote—my husband’s new intern, Sophie, my mother’s Move & Groove teacher, James. Somehow, though, I recently found myself at a dead stop in the middle of a story I was telling. It had to do with a woman with whom I’d been volleying emails about our sons’ coming shipbuilding extravaganza, and I simply blanked. Not just for a moment, but long enough to warrant fishing out my phone to search “pirate” in order to find her name. It was terrifying.

Getting older certainly doesn’t help matters. While 65 was long thought to be the starting point for cognitive decline, a new study out of Harvard shows that women experience memory loss several decades before that. The modern condition of being perpetually overworked and low on sleep does little for the health of the brain, that precious 3-pound organ responsible for processing sensation, thought, movement, and behavior. Some people try memorizing poetry, others swear by crossword puzzles, and there are those brain-training games that advertise on classical radio stations (not to mention brain gyms, where members congregate to play supposedly beneficial video games).

If only the mind could be sharpened like a Japanese knife! A recent review of many studies of brain training exercises found that there is no compelling evidence that engaging with them improves anything besides our ability to play them. Rather more dispiritingly, Dr. John Krakauer, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, says that hammering away at any single task, no matter how high-minded, is not going to cut it. “If you practice at anything, be it French or playing squash, you get better at it, but that is all,” he says. “If you do crossword puzzles you will only get better at crossword puzzles.” He says this even applies to the game of chess. “If you look at the top players, there is no correlation between their IQ and their master status. Once you’ve reached a threshold of IQ, the top players are very good at chess, but they’re not more intelligent than the lesser players.”

While the field of neuroscience is still rife with mystery, there is enough new research coming out to help us boost our brain health. So how to stay sharp? Here, a few bright ideas.

Embrace good stress
Much as we are urged to meditate our way to optimal health, not every day can be perfectly serene—nor, as it turns out, need it be. Just as new forms of exercise can benefit our brains, “moderate levels of stress, properly handled, can actually boost brain function,” says Dr. Ian Robertson at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. “Stress triggers the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which, like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, has a sweet spot whose levels above and below the brain underperforms,” explains Robertson. Before you sign up for three job interviews, bear in mind: It’s best to seek stress that comes with a challenge rather than a threat, so this might translate to trying indoor rock climbing or striking up a conversation with a colleague you normally just nod hello to.

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