10 Amazing Ways to Exercise Your Brain
“Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creativity,” explains Sir Ken Robinson, bestselling author and education expert, in one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. “It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.”
Training our minds to think creatively requires exercising and stretching our brains in various ways. No matter what you want to major in or what professional field you want to enter, success is going to require you come up with creative solutions to complex problems.
Here are ten ways you can get your brain stretching and your mind thinking in “divergent” ways:
1. Learn New Things
The neurological key to brain expansion is neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself through making new connections among neurons. This requires regular intellectual cross-training. According to Brett Wingeier, co-founder of Halo Neuroscience, the brain expands through practice and repetition of varied activities:
Structural plasticity means that—especially when you’re young—unproductive synapses—tiny structures that provide an electrical and chemical junction between neurons] can be “pruned” and eventually disappear, and new synapses can appear, called synaptogenesis. … Whether you’re studying math, refining your golf swing, remembering a conversation with a dear friend … it’s all about learning.
So, keep practicing in what you know and love, and try something new. The farther afield from what you already know, the better.
2. Listen to Music
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, listening to music—especially music you haven’t heard before—provides the brain a “total workout.” Research has demonstrated that listening to music can improve memory and mental alertness and can reduce anxiety. “Music is structural, mathematical and architectural,” explains one Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist. “It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.”
Listening to any and all music is a great workout for the brain. Listening to new music is even better—the unfamiliarity forces your brain to make sense of this new architecture, helping to produce the neuroplasticity your brain needs to make surprising and new connections later.
3. Visit a Museum (or Meditate)
Much like new music, unfamiliar visual art has the ability to exercise our brains and extend the limits of our imaginations. The experience of seeing visual art—and to think through the structure of the work, how its parts relate to each other to form a whole—has allowed me to think thoughts that would have otherwise not been possible.
But another good reason to visit a museum is for its architecture.
According to a team of researchers at the Catholic University of America and the University of Utah, occupying a museum space can be neurologically akin to meditating, which has been shown to “improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.”
Certain expansive spaces such as museums, large, beautiful libraries, and churches have the power to reduce mental anxiety and allow our brains to wander, creating the conditions for new neural connections.
So, for some mind-expansion, get yourself to a museum, or at least download a meditation app.
4. Play Chess
Chess is a complex game that entails concentration, attention to various moving pieces with various abilities, and long-term strategizing.
According to Eleazar Cruz Eusebio, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, it is a great tool for “working-memory training”: “You have to think about the moves ahead of time. You’ve got to plan and strategize, which is really working on executive function.”
New to the game? Download the chess.com app for tutorials and daily lessons. Chess can be frustrating at first, but I can think of fewer better brain exercises.
Much like chess, Sudoku trains our memories and forces us to think at least three or four steps ahead. As Eusebio explains, it’s great exercise for the brain because it gets us to practice making connections between our present decisions and their long-term, sequential effects.
Another advantage to Sudoku is that it can make those who hate math more comfortable with numbers. If math isn’t your thing, Sudoku is good training for rewiring your relationship to numbers.
6. Socialize, both within and beyond your clique
Encountering others and negotiating their emotions and knowledge is an important way to not only improve our minds but to help us feel at home in the world. In short, friendships make us smarter and better people.
To improve both intellectually and ethically, it’s important to engage with people outside of those you already know well. According to Dr. Marie Pasinski—neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You—building friendships is key to improving brain function.
“Socializing with other people and enriching your friendships is … important. I really encourage people to make new friends,” Pasinski explains. “Especially multicultural and multigenerational friendships. People with rich social networks are mentally sharper ... If you take up a new activity and make friends doing it, you are doubling the brain benefits.”
7. Sleep more
Cramming all night is often the student’s method of choice, but it’s a poor long-term strategy.
“Sleep is so important,” explains Dr. Pasinski. “What I find so interesting is that sleep promotes neuroplasticity, the growth of new neurons. It grows new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory center, and sleep deprivation reduces the production of new neurons.”
Simply put, your memory can’t function properly without sleep. So study hard, but get your rest. And if you need more time, get up early and pick up where you left off.
8. Play Scrabble
Play enough Scrabble and you just might fundamentally change the way you use your brain.
That’s what a team of researchers at the University of Calgary found after running tests on non-Scrabble players and Scrabble experts. The study found that Scrabble experts use a different part of the brain to re-arrange sequences of letters into various words (also known as anagramming).
According to Sophia Van Hees, co-author of the study, non-Scrabble players use the language area of the brain to create words, while Scrabble experts primarily use areas associated with visual processing and working memory. These findings demonstrate that we can recruit various areas of the brain to do similar tasks.
This neurological cross-training has the potential to not only stave off brain degeneration, but open new pathways to solving complex problems.
9. Think before Googling. Experience life before selfie-ing.
There is significant evidence that our smartphones are changing our brains—in some ways for better, but also for worse.
One of the negative effects is what scientists call cognitive offloading, which happens when we rely on Google or GPS to find answers that we used to store in our memories. While this offloading allows us to “subvert our cognitive limits”—or reach beyond what our puny brains can handle—it also short-circuits our brain activity.
One recent study demonstrated that museum-visitors were better at remembering artworks that they did not photograph than those that they did. It seems that our cell phone cameras too often stand between ourselves and the world we inhabit. Smartphones can interfere with our ability to have meaningful experiences.
Of course, smartphones are also incredible devices that have the ability to aid in our learning and to preserve mementos. But for brain function, and for living a meaningful life, it’s important that we not outsource our memories and experiences to our screens.
10. Get some exercise (and eat well, too)
If you’re cramming or stressed about grades, it may be tempting to spend as much time as possible sitting down with your laptop, eating whatever’s easiest to get you through the next hour.
But a healthy mind requires a healthy body. Exercise improves our brain function.
According to cognitive psychologist and translational neuroscientist Mylea Charvat, “aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) raises your heart rate and increases blood flow to your brain.”
Eating well is important, too. For improving neuroplasticity, opt for a diet rich in omega-3s, commonly found in Mediterranean cuisines. But, as Charvat explains, a recent study has demonstrated that eating well does not seem to improve brain function unless it is paired with regular exercise.
The best exercise for exercising your brain? Tai chi.
Of course, any exercise is better than none, so do whatever gets your body moving.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.