The human body can be molded. It is programmed to adapt itself to our environmental conditions. In our society, we also have many facilities designed to mold or minds. They direct how our mind adapts so we can achieve the goals we want. However, to reach our maximum potential when it comes to mental training, we must challenge ourselves every day.
Mental training is one of the resources that we have at our side to improve or perfect our mental processes. It is possible to train our minds by completing mentally demanding tasks. Of course, we can’t deny that mental ability has a genetic component. However, there are still strategies we can use to enhance what we have.
Training your mind is very similar to training your body. So, in order to get the best results we must leave our comfort zones. We have to be strong and constant, overcoming difficulty step by step. Once we are used to a certain task, when we can do it automatically, it becomes routine, not training.
The following advice will help you train your mind and achieve your maximum potential:
1. Practice a sport or other physical activity
Aerobic physical exercise that gets you breathing has mental benefits as well as physical ones. Above all, it improves the connection between the frontal and medial temporal lobe. It influences working memory and executive function. The cognitive benefits of sports have a physiological explanation, which is that it favors the production of neurotrophic agents.
Neurotrophic substances increase the synaptic plasticity, neurogenesis, and vascularization of the brain. It reduces the loss of brain volume caused by old age, especially in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning. In order to get these benefits from exercise, you must do it regularly, for about 30 minutes a day.
Cardiovascular exercises can be adapted to the abilities of each person. If you are someone who has never exercised before, you can begin by walking or playing fun sports such as tennis or swimming. The cognitive benefits of practicing a sport last until old age, acting as a protector against illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
2. Train your working memory
Exercising working memory is very useful for stimulating our cognitive abilities. Many exercises for working memory exist. One of the tasks designed for this type of exercise is the n-back. In this exercise, you look at a screen and a figure appears, then disappears. Later, it appears again. You must decide if it appeared in the same place it was before. Each time you can increase the difficulty.
This task forces you to retain recent information and compare it with current information. What is interesting about this task is that evidence has shown that the skills gained here can transfer to other tasks, such as fluidity of reasoning.
Any task that requires the temporary retention of auditory or visual information and later use of it is exercising working memory and is a form of mental training. For example, listen to a series of numbers, and repeat them in reverse order. Normally, you should start with a medium level of difficulty and then adapt it to your abilities. It is important to find the balance between it being challenging, but not impossible or frustrating.
3. Leave your comfort zone
We have to do new things in order to strengthen our mind. We can start out small. Maybe learn a new hobby that makes us think, such as learning to play an instrument. Or, we could start watching a new show in Spanish with English subtitles. Once you feel comfortable, change the subtitles to Spanish, then get rid of them altogether.
In short, the important thing is to continue learning throughout life. We all assume that children are learning every day because that is what their age is about. Children, furthermore, can learn more easily and their neuroplasticity is at its peak. However, as has been observed lately, it is never too late to learn.
It is logical that the activities we do should be catered to our age and abilities. Of course, they should also be activities that we like. Motivation is crucial so that we don’t abandon the new activity, especially if it makes us uncomfortable at first. Other examples of activities that increase mental ability are word searches, crosswords, and sudoku puzzles. Playing chess, and even forming new social relationships, can also benefit the mind.
Reading is one of the most efficient and least expensive forms of mental training. We don’t have to use technology or other tools. We can do it in our own homes, and it is a pleasant activity. The sooner we start the habit of reading the better. That is why it is important to read to children and encourage them to start reading short stories on their own.
Reading brings into play many mental processes such as perception, memory, and reasoning. When we read, we decode the visual stimuli (letters, words, phrases) by converting them into mental sounds that have meaning. This action activates broad areas of the cerebral cortex.
Reading can also encourage imagination and creativity, and help us learn new vocabulary. It is a way to keep learning that is fun and enjoyable. Of all the methods to strengthen our brains, reading is one of the most important. There are many studies that confirm reading at an early age can cause higher cognitive ability.
5. Live in a complex and rich environment
When we refer to our pets or animals in a zoo, we often talk about whether they are getting enough stimulation. This concept can also be applied to people. For a human being, and enriching and stimulating environment would be one full of novelties and complexities. An environment in which there are changes that force us to adapt.
For example, a child that grows up in an enriched environment is always surrounded by new information and activities. A family that plays the piano at home and teaches the children, that reads together, that supports critical thought, leaves room for mental growth. Children benefit from an environment in which they are faced with challenges and must find their own solutions.
According to Stern, this type of complex environment provides subjects with two types of resources. On one hand, we have “hardware” with more synapses and greater dendritic arborization. On the other hand, we have the “software”, which consists of having more adjusted cognitive abilities. In adulthood, living in an enriched environment can be achieved by having an active life, both physically and mentally.
6. Enhance creativity
To improve our cognitive abilities, we must do more than calculation or memory exercises. Exercises that focus on unleashing creativity are also helpful. Music, painting, dance, or theater are activities that favor creativity. They are also hobbies which can be done in our free time, fighting a sedentary lifestyle.
Performing this type of activity helps to induce greater mental flexibility and originality, associated with the activation of specific neural networks. Creativity has also been found to positively influence resilience and thus helps us cope with the losses and changes that inevitably accompany adulthood.
Creativity can have a positive impact at the cognitive level thanks to its influence on other levels such as motivation, social relationship building, or other cognitive components. Any task that forces us to leave our routine and meet new people will have an impact on quality of life, especially for the elderly.
7. Learn a new language
Language is one of the most complex higher functions our brain performs. It involves more areas of the cerebral cortex. Despite it’s complexity, humans have the innate ability to learn language, especially in childhood when the brain is more plastic. However, we can learn languages throughout our lives. Learning a new language is a good form of mental training.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the benefits of bilingualism, finding that it produces better selective attention and develops the habit of commuting mental contents. Learning two languages from the moment you learn to speak and using them in the family, social, and educational fields is the most beneficial. When they are learned after childhood, the second language will always be subordinated to the first.
The only way to generate linguistic automatisms without having to translate everything simultaneously from the mother tongue is practice. Therefore, it is not worth learning a language for only two hours a week. It is better for our brain to practice, especially by having conversations with native speakers.
Cognitive stimulation and maintaining an active lifestyle can prevent neurodegenerative diseases and compensate for neurological damage. It increases our cognitive reserve and activates compensatory mechanisms for damage. It is important to do mental training exercises throughout our lives, not just in old age.
Escaping from routine, being an active person, and wanting to learn and discover things can all help you get the most out of your mind. Imposing intellectual challenges, leaving monotony and a sedentary lifestyle behind are the most effective forms of mental training. Use calculating and memory exercises, change your habits.
In research on the cognitive reserve, the main factors that influence the plasticity of the brain is the work that is performed throughout life, the habit of reading, the years of education, and the social network you have. So the brain is molded from our first year of life until we die, which gives us plenty of opportunities to intervene in its development.
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Redolat R. (2012). La estimulación mental como factor potenciador de la reserva cognitiva y del envejecimiento activo. Informació psiclògica, 104:72-83.
Redolat R. y Mesa-Gresa P. (2012). Potential benefits and limitations of enriched environments and cognitive activity on age-related behavioural decline. Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10:293-316.
Stern Y. (2009). Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia, 47(10), 2015-28.