February 11, 2016

Easy Ways To Stimulate Your Brain

brain stimulationBy Rheagan Rizio, USC Student, Be Well USC Blogger

While there is no absolutely definitive answer, research has demonstrated many times over that there may be benefits to staying mentally active. This is likely because keeping minds active and continually challenged means that thinking skills are less likely to decline over time (similar to a muscle: you need to constantly exercise it or it’ll wither and atrophy). Below is a list of easy ways to keep your mind stimulated, and (hopefully) keep you cognitively sharp throughout the rest of your life.

Physical Exercise

Exercise has both physical and cognitive benefits. Physically, it can diminish chances of developing certain chronic diseases (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc) and can help you lose weight. Psychologically, research has demonstrated that frequent exercisers often have less depression, anxiety and stress than non-exercisers, and even in stressful times, exercise can help you to relax (this relaxation comes from the release of endorphins: for a full explanation of what endorphins are, and what they do, click here).

When it comes to certain diseases, specifically Alzheimer’s, research has consistently shown that physical exercise improves cognition and helps alleviate symptoms (the stress-decreasing benefit of exercise is especially important, as several studies have suggested that stress may increase one’s risk of Alzheimer’s development). The influence of stress and exercise on one’s risk of developing this disease may be due in part to the physical effects of both on the body. This is likely due to alterations in vascular risk factors, including but not limited to hypertension (stress has been shown to raise this, while exercise has been shown to diminish it), diabetes (stress can raise/increase it in severity, exercise is important in preventing/controlling it), and aortic stiffening (same as the previous two). There is also a direct influence on the cerebrovasculature (meaning the physical properties/structure of the brain), including changes in cerebral blood flow (blood flow to/from and inside the brain) and angiogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels from previously existing blood vessels).

One study looked at the impact that 6 months of aerobic exercise (specifically cycling) had on patients with Alzheimer’s. During the 6 months, though the disease was by no means cured, it also did not advance further (this was determined by the fact that severity scores did not increase during this time); as a result, their caretaker’s stress decreased 40%. The conclusion was that aerobic exercise may potentially reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms, which also implicates its benefits with other degenerative diseases such as dementia. While these results are not conclusive, it certainly isn’t any secret that exercise is good for you, and it’s important to make time for it in between classes and schoolwork.

To learn more about the benefits of physical exercise on your mental health, click here.

Mental exercise

Exercises to “grow your brain” and prevent deterioration have become increasingly popular in recent years. You can find them almost anywhere: online, in activity books to completely on long trips. Exercises such as these can have very positive benefits for your health and longevity. One fun exercise that I’ve been struggling through for the past month is extremely simple: take normal, everyday activities (writing, brushing your teeth, eating) and simply perform them with your non-dominant hand. Forcing your non-dominant hand to perform these activities forms new connections in the brain, and it has been suggested that these strengthen the corpus callosum (found in the space between the two halves of your brain), which then strengthen communication between the two sides of your brain and can help improve overall cognitive ability. This has also been implicated in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as general brain deterioration and dementia.

Mental practice, additionally, is found to have the added benefit of increasing hand function of the dominant as well as the non-dominant side (it’s a constant cycle: work on one, improve the other). In one study, 2,800 adults aged 65 and over were recruited to attend a maximum of 10 brain training sessions over the course of 5-6 weeks. This training specifically focused on memory, reasoning, and speed of processing information. The result for participants were cognitive improvements that lasted up to 5 years, as well as improvements in their ability to perform everyday tasks (this improvement transferred particularly well in their ability to manage money). While scientists have yet to find a definitive answer as to why this is the case, studies on animals have demonstrated that performing mental exercise can support the growth of new nerve cells, prompt these nerve cells to send signals and messages to each other, and reduce how much brain cell damage occurs during certain diseases (Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc).

To learn more about the effect of mental practice on non-dominant hand function, click here.

Don’t watch as much television

It should come as no surprise that television is not the most mentally stimulating activity you can do (in fact, it’s one of the least stimulating). Research on children has demonstrated that having a television in the bedroom, as well as being exposed to more background TV, appears to have a negative effect on their comprehension of mental states. This, in turn, may be one reason why disruptive attention disorders are growing in frequency; either directly, from a lack of development resulting from not stimulating the brain, or because children tend to spend an alarming amount of time sedentary in front of the television rather than being physically active and burning off excess energy. So what does this mean for us as college students? While we may be better adept at controlling ourselves from disrupting class and are typically much more attuned to mental states, both in others and ourselves, taking time out of our day to perform mentally stimulating activities is still important.

Some suggestions include:
Learn something new (language, instrument, etc.)
Play board/card games, work on crosswords, etc. (social interactions help the brain, too! If you have an opportunity to do any of these activities with a friend, take it!)
Read, write, take classes (these are all easy because we should be doing these activities everyday for school anyway, but reading for pleasure and writing for fun are also great ideas!)

To read the full article, click here.

Hopefully this was a fun, informative read. If you’re already doing several of these activities (exercising, doing puzzles, etc): great work, keep it up! But if you’re not and you want to start, or you just want to add more to what you’re already doing, easy substitutions (like playing sudoku instead of watching TV after class, or walking home instead of ubering) are extremely beneficial. Good luck, and happy brain challenging!