Four surprising activities that can actually make you smarter
The trick to keeping the brain ‘young’ is keeping it engaged - hence the emphasis on wading into unfamiliar territory and keeping it primed.
Enhancing intellectual capability has been an area of interest since the beginning of time. Earlier, higher intelligence was the ultimate survival skill. Now, mental capital is key to climbing the professional and social ladder. Our cognitive abilities may be framed by our genetic makeup but that is no cause for despair; intelligence is built by experience and exposing yourself to novel experiences.
The promise of neuroplasticity
Simply put, neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change over a lifetime in response to various stimuli and experiences. This involves a change in the proportion of grey matter, modifications in neural networks by ‘rewiring’ and changes in synaptic mechanisms. Modularity exists in neural networks (meaning that certain parts of the brain perform particular tasks), but the ability to perform other functions is retained to a certain limit. This flexibility and ability to ignite new pathways allow us to process information in a manner that can be preserved and assimilated with other stimuli in what is called inductive learning.
The priming of the brain
The takeaway from this is that the brain can be trained and exercised like a muscle. Constantly being exposed to challenging situations, and having a curious disposition are vital building blocks to being a more intellectually sound person.
Here are some activities that you can do to increase your cognitive abilities:
1. Playing the drums
A study published earlier this month in the journal Brain and Behavior examined the effects of drumming on the structure of the brain. The brains of 20 professional drummers (‘professional’ in the study meant those practising for 17 years for more than 10 hours a week) were compared with non-drummers using MRI scanning. Structural differences in the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain and influences motor skills were observed. Drummers had fewer, but thicker fibres in this connective tract. This is linked to higher efficiency in transmitting messages across the hemispheres and elevated motor skills. The brains of drummers are less active during motor skills - a process called sparse sampling. What this means is that irrelevant information is filtered out during sensory interaction and associative learning is given a boost.
A highly cited study from the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that dancing increases mental sharpness at all ages. The study followed senior citizens (those over 75 years of age) for 21 years and assessed the effects of various mental and physical exercises on the onset of dementia. Interestingly, bicycling and swimming showed a 0% effect on the onset of symptoms, as did playing golf. Solving crossword puzzles 4 days a week had a 47% effect on lowering the risk of dementia and reading, 35%. Dancing frequently, however, showed a 76% effect.
Dr Robert Katzman, who was associated with the study said that the increased complexity of neuronal synapses may have contributed to the findings. Dancing is a complex activity that integrates several brain functions — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — and amplifying neural connectivity.
The study falls short in explaining why dancing promotes mental sharpness more than other physical activities such as swimming. But the association is clear: mental capacity is increased by exercising cognitive processes.
Interacting with new people challenges your assumptions, exposes you to new ideas, assists you with your own and offers avenues for collaboration. Taking from others' insights and perspectives can make you see your own opinions in a new light and add depth to them. Conversing with people also involves thinking on your feet and making several split-second decisions, keeping in mind social conventions and strategies. Every interaction is different and can’t be predicted - it is the dynamism that keeps the mind ticking.
4. Learning a new language
Being bilingual has been associated with greater cognitive ability and delay in the onset of dementia. Studies have shown that the executive functions of the brain are more efficient in bilinguals - this involves the command system of the brain which carries out complex mental tasks such as planning, decision making and problem-solving. The minds of bilinguals are ‘quieter’ in that there is less brain activity in comparison to monolinguals when performing these tasks; in the face of distractions and background noise, bilinguals are better able to sift through stimuli and arrive at conclusions. A heightened ability to monitor environments has been attributed to this - gauging which language to use when in a group may keep bilinguals in a more aware state.
Studies have also shown that those who are proficient bilinguals are more likely to stave off dementia and Alzheimer's than monolinguals.
As can be inferred, these are not abilities that can be learnt overnight. The trick to keeping the brain ‘young’ is keeping it engaged - hence the emphasis on wading into unfamiliar territory and keeping it primed.
For more information, please read our article on How to increase brain power.
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