On Brain Health

Do you know how to have a smarter, healthier brain?

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it…”

Well, think about it now. Any ideas? What makes your brain work well?

“Getting enough sleep, for one.”

Right. Anything else?

“I suppose eating properly…”

Right. Anything else?

“Oh. I’ve heard that exercise is good for the brain.”

Right. Anything else?

“Um… oh! Puzzles, games, activities, those sorts of things.”

What sort of puzzles?

“Oh, you know. Sudoku. Crosswords.”

Do they exercise your brain?

“Sure. I mean, they feel challenging.”

Absolutely. But do they exercise the brain enough?

“I would think so…”

What if I told you that, even if those puzzles feel like you’re working out your brain, it barely helps?

“That’d surprise me. Are you saying that puzzles don’t strengthen the brain?”

Oh, they do. They have to be the right puzzles, that’s all.

“The right puzzles?”

Yep. Part of it is that learning how to solve a puzzle is the real exercise. The first few times you play a Sudoku, (or your first run through of Portal,) you are learning new ways of thinking. This is good for the brain. Once you have mastered the skill, though, the benefit wears off.

“Huh. So solving a Sudoku, once you know how, isn’t a challenge anymore. Are there any puzzles that strengthen your brain even after you learn the process?”

Yep. But you probably wouldn’t call these ‘puzzles’…

“Go on.”

Social interactions. Navigating a new city (without GPS). Walking on cobblestones.

“… cobblestones?”

Yeah. Walking on unpredictable terrain forces your brain to make predictions, maintain balance, engage different muscles…

“Right… but you can’t say that walking down the street is harder than solving a crossword.”

Not harder, no, but it does exercise the right parts of your brain. At least, this is according to Dr Michael Merzenich. He talks about it in his book, Soft-wired. These are challenges that our ancestors faced every day, yet modern humans rarely face. We are overtaxing the wrong parts of the brain and underusing the right parts.

“Huh, sounds plausible. If that’s true, then what can we do?”

Exercise balance and navigation skills every day. If that isn’t enough, try BrainHQ. Merzenich recommends it, which he would, seeing as it’s his company. Then again, the site has a lot more (and better) science supporting its claims than other brain training systems.

“Interesting. Does it work?”

Honestly, no idea. But I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t think it did…


This post is part of Brain Month at Mindwalker Training.

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