BlogTuesday 29 Sep 2015

CrossFit for the brain: how brain exercises can improve your memory and cognitive ability

We all have good and bad brain days. When your synapses are firing, immense concepts are grasped with ease and your mind fizzes with creativity. You even remember the punchline of every long-winded joke you heard at last weekend’s BBQ.

But what about those days when the grey matter feels like a worn-out old sock? No matter how hard you try, new information just won’t sink in. Productivity plummets and you just want to assume the couch position. You can’t even find that last packet of Tim Tams!

So wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could train our brain to be more useful, more consistent AND more clever?

In recent years a billion dollar industry has sprung up around the concept of ‘brain training’, including video games, apps and the inevitable webinars that purveyors swear will boost your memory and make you – yes, even you! – smarter.

But are these train-your-brain offers genuine scientifically-based schemes or just modern day versions of snake oil scams?

Fortunately there has been extensive research on the benefits of brain training.

One recent study involved four groups of ten-year-olds. Two groups were trained using brain games on a Nintendo DS, a third group completed a range of puzzles with pencil and paper while the last served as a control group and just went on with life as normal.

The results were surprising.

When given maths and logic tests a few weeks later, the puzzlers and gamers were locked in a tie, with the control group a close third.

In memory tests, the pencil and paper group improved by a third. However, the gamers actually showed a 17 per cent drop in memory performance!

In summary, the study found that, while DS consoles are no doubt a lot of fun, simply reading, playing Scrabble or even watching a documentary is just as beneficial, if not more so, in improving mental acuity.

Despite results like these, the neuroscience health and wellness industry argues brain training does make a difference if it’s practised often and the exercises target specific functions, such as memory or concentration. 

And as rapid information processing becomes more and more important in the 21st Century, demand is expected to soar for digital tools that enhance workplace productivity, performance and wellness in employees.

However, if you feel like you’re a dunce at digital brain training exercises, don’t despair – there are non-digital versions, too!

The great minds of antiquity didn’t use a Brainorama app on their iPad to conceive the awesome pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China.

In fact, when we learn anything new - languages, funky dance routines or how to juggle, for example – we’re actually engaging in a form of brain training.

The sheer mental gymnastics of applying the mind to a new concept or skill requires our brains to create new neural pathways (or synapses), to store and retrieve this fresh information. The more times a task is practised, the stronger the pathway will become.

So even if you decide to take a different route home or read a ‘whodunit’ novel, you’re laying a dazzling new neural pathway in your brain’s information roadmap.

Now that’s a super information highway no computer could ever hope to rival.

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