Jane Wilson is a project management professional who employs team building skills in conjunction with project plan development & execution.
Can we improve our capacity for creativity, memory and analysis through brain training exercises? Do online brain training games really work? The simple answer to these questions is yes; we can improve the brain's ability to function, and we can actually reshape the physical structure of our brains through neuroplasticity training exercises.
Happily, in improving your brain's ability to function, it is not necessary to pay for expensive online games that ultimately add nothing to the quality of your life. These nine training tips are free to engage in, will improve your brain's function, and entice you to live life to its fullest!
Brain Plasticity Building Blocks
In this article, you will learn the secrets to improving your brain function by making small adjustments to your daily routine.
- Learn how to engage in "Whole Brain" thinking by using both hemispheres of your brain simultaneously.
- Identify how to make simple adjustments to your daily routine by practicing "Focused Attention."
- Realize how light exercise and exploration can improve brain function.
- Explore the many benefits of meditation, plus an easy meditation hack for those of us who can't seem to drown out the distracting thoughts and concerns of the day.
- Discover how new friendships and laughter can actually physically grow your brain.
- Find the right foods to feed and nourish your brain and learn to banish the brain's enemies!
- And finally, improve your overall life experience by practicing "Positive Forward Thinking" and increasing the areas of your brain that engender a sense of wellbeing.
Can We Increase Brain Function As We Age?
A study of randomly chosen individuals aged 57 to 71 showed improved brain function after just 12 hours of strategic brain training exercises. Using MRIs of the participants' brains both before and after, researchers saw upwards of an 8% improvement in blood flow and other indices that indicate improved brain function.
Improved brain function included improved ability to strategize, remember and draw big-picture conclusions from lengthy texts of information.
Remarkably, in a follow-up study using MRIs again on the participants, researchers found that the benefits derived from the single training session were still in place one year later. Enhanced synaptic plasticity means that we can think faster, listen better, respond to situations faster and concentrate with greater focus. Creativity is enhanced as well.
Neuroplasticity and How It Works in Layman's Terms
Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to form new neural pathways or synapses. In layman’s terms, consider that your neural pathways are like roads or highways on which information travels to and from areas of the cerebral cortex for storage and recall. Neural pathways allow you to recall and store information on anything and everything: from what things are, to how to do things, to memories and other processes, such as creativity.
The more we use a certain piece of information or a skill set, the larger that neural pathway becomes; think of it as a multi-lane expressway. Information we rarely use and skills that we allow to dwindle, experience a decline in the neural pathway leading to that area of the brain. Consider that the synapse leading to where information is seldom used is stored, as being similar to becoming an overgrown dirt road. Eventually, with lack of use, the brain will clear away the unused neural pathways in a process called synaptic pruning. In layman's terms that would mean, "I used to know how to play the flute in grade school, but now I have forgotten how to play the instrument."
Remarkably, every time we learn something new, our brain structure changes. New neural pathways (synapses) are physically created in order to store and retrieve this new information. This is part of the brain’s amazing plasticity, the quality of being easily shaped or molded.
Our ongoing ability to create and retrieve new information is critical to man’s ability to successfully respond to changes in his environment. As we learn new skills and information, our brain structure physically changes; these transformations are observable on MRIs of brain scans.
Growing Your Brain & How It Works
We can increase our brain’s neuroplasticity at any time in our lives. By simply staying engaged in new activities, learning new skills, and interacting with other people, we see beneficial effects across the brain’s structure.
The trick is to challenge yourself to think in new ways and about new things. Even activities such as juggling, tango dancing, and three-dimensional puzzles challenge the brain by making simultaneous demands on both hemispheres, known as whole brain thinking.
The key to neuroplasticity is to learn new things every day. Regular learning changes the brain’s structure, improves our speed of thought, decision-making abilities, and comprehension of events as they occur around us. In other words, what flows through your mind, sculpts your brain. Many of these tips can also help you reduce your stress levels, which is critical to healthy cognitive function.
Step 1: Engage in New Challenges and Develop “Whole Brain Thinking”
When faced with something that seems unfamiliar or difficult, go for it. Dive in, and attempt to master a new technique, language, computer program, hobby, or physical activity. In particular try to find activities that employ both hemispheres of the brain, known as whole brain thinking.
In the diagram above, you see the activities managed by each side of the brain. The right hemisphere reasons holistically, meaning it is responsible for recognizing big picture patterns and interpreting emotions and nonverbal expressions. In contrast, the left hemisphere controls logical thought processes such as sequencing, analytical thought, and detailed object perception.
The right hemisphere is intuition and overall comprehension of the details and minutiae that have been gathered by the left hemisphere, nearly simultaneously.
For example, the left hemisphere reads words sequentially from left to right. While the left side of the brain is decoding each word, the right hemisphere is interpreting the contextual meaning of the words simultaneously. The right hemisphere allows us to see many things at once and create a holistic picture of the details gathered by the left hemisphere.
In addition, the left hemisphere controls the ride side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. This is why ambidextrous activities such as juggling and playing musical instruments enhance whole brain thinking.
By learning and practicing activities that force us to use both hemispheres, we continually become more adept at whole-brain thinking. MRIs reveal that earning to play a new musical instrument, perform a complex dance such as the tango, or master a learning a new language, computer or spoken, increases the size of the engaged areas of the brain.
Ultimately this new capacity spills over into other areas of our lives. Whole brain thinking improves overall creativity and physical coordination and heightens instincts and intuition.
Step 2: Practice Focused Attention
When you fully focus your attention on objects, events, new information, or conversations, neuroplasticity is heightened. Focused attention, in contrast to “listening with one ear,” sucks information into the brain.
Pay close attention to the details of your environment and nuances in conversation. When presented with new information, reflect on what you have learned and try to remember the important points or aspects of the new information. Each new tidbit of information creates new neural pathways in the brain. Reflecting on and remembering the information strengthens the new neural pathway.
Understanding Early Brain Development and Synaptic Pruning as We Age
In a newborn human child, there are approximately 2,500 synapses for each neuron in the cerebral cortex. By three years old, the synapses per neuron have increased dramatically to approximately 15,000. However, by adulthood, the number has decreased to around 7000 to 8000. This reversal is due to synaptic pruning, the removal of pathways to seldom used and unused information.
Young children have high neuroplasticity, as they are constantly and eagerly absorbing information from their surroundings and learning new tasks. This is why young children learn second languages more easily than adults do when attempting to learn a second language for the first time. Children’s brains are in a growth phase, regularly generating new neural pathways called synapses. As we age this process slows, and appears to reverse.
Step Three encourages us to return to observing the world with childlike wonder. An attitude that encourages the absorption of new facts and skills.
The exciting reality is that new synapses can be created at any time in life simultaneously with synaptic pruning.
Step 3: Explore with Childlike Wonder
Exploration is an attitude towards experiencing one's environment. Rather than just moving from point A to point B; exploration challenges us to investigate our surroundings.
If you like to walk or bike ride for exercise, choose new locations for your outings. Pay attention to the details of the path, the flora, and the people you come across. Engage these new people you encounter with a smile or a nod as you pass by. Visit new areas and travel if possible.
If you travel, you may have noticed that you seem more exhausted than you might normally feel at home at the end of each day. Travel challenges us to absorb substantial detail while exploring new environments. While traveling, try to adopt the customs and practices of those you encounter during your journey. Explore historical sites, different religious centers, and museums. Challenge yourself to understand the positives inherent in the differences between your culture and this new culture you are exploring. Take guided tours, and remember to focus your attention fully while exploring.
Step 4: Exercise 3 to 4 Days A Week For 30 to 45 Minutes Per Session
Adding moderate exercise to your routine improves not only improves our physical condition, but our brains benefit as well. Exercise improves circulation and reduces stress, thereby improving blood flow and oxygen to the brain. The brain uses a remarkable 20% of the oxygen we take into our bodies. Even just walking for 30 to 45 minutes will improve blood and oxygen flow to the brain, aiding neuroplasticity.
Remember, taking in the scenes during your walk and noticing the details and changes in the neighborhood, encourages whole-brain thinking. Walking or biking and even working out in a gym, while watching an information program on the television, packs a powerful two-fold punch in brain function improvement.
The Brain's Biggest Enemy
Outside of toxins and injuries, stress is the greatest enemy of the brain. Prolonged stress results in increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which at high sustained levels cause a variety of malfunctions across the human system. Cortisol alone can encourage weight gain, impede neuron development and increase synaptic pruning across all neural pathways. Stress can actually cause brain damage.
The body cannot build new or replace dead neurons when it is in a constant state of stress. Under prolonged periods of stress, even more than one hour, the brain begins to prune back the number of branches and synaptic connections of hippocampal neurons. As the stress continues, these conditions also increase the rate of cell death in this region of the brain, resulting in a reduced capacity for contextual memory.
We can't always control the sources of our stress, but we can control how our bodies respond to external stresses.
Step 5: Protect Your Brain . . . Learn to Meditate
Meditation is a great stress reliever, and it has many interesting beneficial effects on the actual brain's structure.
Meditation increases the thickness and strength of the frontal cortex of the brain. As we age the frontal cortex decreases in size; studies show that those who meditate experience less of this decrease in the frontal cortex.
Meditation is known to reduce stress and cortisol in the system. It also boosts the immune system.
If you don’t know how to meditate, there are CDs available that will guide you through the process. With the assistance of electronic sounds and music, the listener’s brain is taken into alpha wave patterns, then down to the theta wave patterns (which we employ in dreams and memory), and finally down to delta wave patterns (the patterns of dreamless sleep).
We can't always control the sources of our stress, but we can control how our bodies respond to external stresses.
Brain Entrainment - Teaching The Mind To Fully Relax
Step 6: Develop Stimulating Friendships
As we age, we tend to seek out those things we are familiar with, including friends. One of the more enjoyable tasks in improving neuroplasticity is making new stimulating friendships.
Joining groups with a common interest such as a book club, bird watching group or travel group can lead to stimulating friendships centered on the exchange of new ideas and a shared appreciation of the activity.
Teaching, sharing, and empathizing are all activities that boost new neural development. Empathizing, the art of mirroring the emotions of another, and compassion encourage our brains to explore new emotions and perspectives, which in turn enhance neuroplasticity.
Step 7: Laugh Often!
As mentioned earlier, prolonged stress is the enemy of the brain. To be truly effective, brain training requires that the individual is in a positive mindset. Few things help us change our frame of mind better than a good laugh.
Laughter has a natural healing capacity. It reduces stress and produces an overall sense of well-being. Laughter can move us into a positive frame of mind prior to beginning any brain training exercises. Furthermore, laughing at mentally challenging and complex humor involving paradoxes and surprising turns of phrases amps up the increases in neuroplasticity as well.
Step 8: Water and Feed Your Brain to Make It Grow!
If you want to think faster, be more creative, and live life to the fullest, you will want to begin by feeding your brain good nutrients. While the brain weighs on average only 2% of our total body weight, it consumes up to 20% of the nutrients we take into our bodies.
Studies have shown the following foods have the maximum beneficial effects on our brains.
- Walnuts and raw almonds are great for the brain and delicious to eat. Substitute almond milk in your breakfast cereal to jump-start your brain for the rest of the day.
- Jolly Green Giants—leafy dark green vegetables such as kale, spinach, collards, and even romaine lettuce slow the rate of cognitive decline.
- Dark Chocolate—the flavonoids contained in dark chocolate improve circulation which helps speed oxygen to the brain.
- Monosaturated Fats, such as olive oil actually slow down brain aging. Enjoy avocados, another source of monosaturated fats; they improve vascular health and circulation.
- Eat more cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens have a slower rate of cognitive decline.
- Indulge in foods rich with Omega 3s such as salmon, sardines, lentils, and flax seed.
- Eat more berries; the more colorful the fruit, the better it is for your body. Enjoy at least one serving of fruit a day.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can lead to impaired cognitive function.
Feed Your Brain
Step 9: Practice Positive Forward Thinking
You can physically increase those areas of your brain's structure that generate positive thoughts and emotions. By working at framing positive thoughts and taking positive actions, we can create increases in the size of the areas of the brain that generate positive feelings.
With practice, we can make ourselves naturally happier and more positive people. Conversely, engaging regularly in negative thinking has the ability to grow the areas of the brain that produce negative feelings, unleashing a downward spiral.
The idea is to take the negative thoughts, those that convince you something cannot be achieved, and are associated with fear of failure, and turn them into positive actionable thoughts.
We learn through both positive achievements and through failure. Failure is a normal part of developing any new skill or ability, so embrace it positively, and view it as a learning experience.
When you feel anxiety embarking on a new endeavor, use the three R’s to rename, reframe and redirect. Actively rethink the situation to take it from a stumbling block to an achievable challenge in your mindset.
Do Online Brain Training Games Work?
In the short term, brain training games do provide benefits to increasing neuroplasticity. However, over time as the games become more familiar the benefits diminish. At the point where you realize that your scores are improving due to practice and familiarity with the game's constructs, the benefits decrease proportionally to the ease with which the game is mastered.
Furthermore, brain training games, which may be enjoyable, do not enhance the quality of the individual's life. No new information is learned nor skills created. For those who enjoy playing games for the game's sake, the games hold value. For those seeking to improve their brain plasticity who do not particularly enjoy games, the online systems are a time drain.
Many of the tips listed above merely require that you open your eyes and ears to improve your attention to detail, make better choices in nutrition, and accentuate the positive as you move through your normal routine. Best of all they are free and easily adapted into your life!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2014 Jane Wilson
Perrin on July 03, 2017:
I found the practice very easy. I wonder if it's because English is my second language.
Janet on October 11, 2016:
I found it really easy, but I am left-handed, don't know if that has anything to do with it.
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on February 12, 2016:
Hi Madhu: Thank you for dropping by. Without knowing specifics on your stroke survivor, studies indicate that enriched environments provide the best setting for recovery from a lesion. The best results were from socially and physically enriched environments. (The positive effects were seen even when therapy in an enriched environment was delayed as much as 15 days after the event).
"hypothesized that the beneficial effect of enriched environment might be caused by increased synthesis of neurotrophic factors. Neurotrophic factors are polypeptides capable of promoting neuronal survival. Local neurotrophin action may promote synaptic remodeling and changes in receptor expression." You can read the full study here: http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/31/1/223.ful...
Madhu on February 08, 2016:
very good Article, Can you please help me with tips to improve neuroplasticity for stroke survivors
kristin on April 18, 2015:
what are your sources? do you have data and citations to inform your statements?
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on February 26, 2015:
Hi John: That's another reason not to buy into online brain training courses, many of the rely on colors to test your cognitive abilities.
John S on February 22, 2015:
Impossible test when you are colourblind
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on November 05, 2014:
Hi Dan: Let me look around and try to get back with you. You can try searching Plosone dot com for starters. I don't have that info handy anymore.
Dan on November 03, 2014:
This is a great overview of ways to improve neuroplasticity. I'm actually doing some research and need to describe methods of enhancing neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, I need to use scholarly research! Do you have a reference list of some sort which you pulled this information from? I'd love to take a look at the research.
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on September 15, 2014:
Hi RNMSN: Great point, new hobbies are an excellent way to get those synapses snapping!
Barbara Bethard from Tucson, Az on September 15, 2014:
excellent hub Health Reports! What about hobbies or crafts as a way to keep the synapses 'snapping instead of napping'? :) that's the way I think of what happens if I can't remember something, my synapses don't snap,they just take a nap. ha well you said to keep laughing!
Liz Davis from Hudson, FL on June 27, 2014:
The subject of brain plasticity is so interesting! I practice meditation and yoga regularly not only for stress management, but also to develop abilities to control my thought processes effectively. Thank you for these useful tips!
Ryan on June 23, 2014:
Great article, except one thing. The left brain/right brain thing has been thoroughly debunked. However, that doesn't detract from the usefulness of the article. I will be back to read more. Good job!
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on May 09, 2014:
Thanks Sushma Webber - I look forward to checking out you blog!
Hi Space Shanty - thanks for dropping by - please do keep returning , I will update as new information becomes available.
Sushma Webber from New Zealand on May 07, 2014:
Excellent hub! I too have for the past few months been interested in Brain Growth and started my blog Rewire Your Brain in 40 Days. Your article touches on all the key points - well done.
SpaceShanty from United Kingdom on May 02, 2014:
Excellent Hub, I will bookmark it and keep coming back.
Jane Wilson (author) from Geogia on May 02, 2014:
Hi Suzy Miles thanks for trying out the video. You just got a little smarter lol!
Suzanne Miles from Phoenix, Arizona on May 01, 2014:
Awesome read, the brain workout shown in the video was difficult at the first go, but after watching the video twice it became easier.