How to Increase Your Brainpower With Mental Stimulation
An Inside Look at Popular “Brain Games” and Other Mentally Stimulating Activities
- The Importance of Mental Stimulation|
- Brain-Training Benefits|
- Mentally Stimulating Activities|
- Other Ways to Boost Your Brain|
- Can Mental Stimulation Improve Cognition?|
- Mental stimulation can increase cognition by improving attention span, memory, information processing speed, and decision-making skills (factors that can play a role in overall intelligence).
- Mental stimulation is likely an effective way to delay and/or prevent cognitive decline, and lessen the severity of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Effective, research-backed forms of mental stimulation include life-long education, learning a second language, crossword puzzles, and social interaction.
- Computerized brain games may offer some cognitive benefits, but research on their effectiveness is mixed and they have limited real-world application.
- Exercise and mindfulness are other great ways to boost cognition while providing global health benefits.
Many of us know the importance of keeping our brains healthy to help protect against memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline later in life. But do activities that provide mental stimulation help make you smarter, while preventing age-related cognitive impairment?
The answer is likely yes, as mental stimulation has shown to enhance your attention span, memory, reasoning abilities, and task performance, while warding off cognitive decline. Traditional forms of mental stimulation, including life-long education, crossword puzzles, and learning new tasks (like photography or computer skills), appear to provide the most real-world benefits, as do activities like exercise and mindfulness.
Many popular digital “brain games,” such as phone applications and computer games, promise to increase your cognition (a function closely related to intelligence), but the research backing them is mixed. Furthermore, their effects may not extend to real-world activities like job performance and attention to daily tasks. While they can be a fun way to potentially improve your cognitive function — and don’t appear to do any harm — it may be best to stick to the tried-and-true forms of mental stimulation if you’re struggling with any form of cognitive impairment.
Let’s take a deeper look at the various forms of mental stimulation and see how they measure up in improving your cognition.
The Importance of Mental Stimulation
Mental stimulation — or activities that challenge the way you think and process information — is important, as it can help improve your cognitive function and protect against the decline of mental abilities. Mental stimulation enhances your ability to understand and adapt to new information, fine-tunes decision-making skills, and increases your attention span and memory [1, 2].
While most of the research on mental stimulation applies to cognitive health, there’s evidence that it may improve mood, general health, and your overall quality of life . However, before we get further into the specific types of mental stimulation and their benefits, let’s break down some important key terms:
- Cognitive function/cognition: A complex, global function that describes attention span, language comprehension, decision-making processes, memory, and the ability to take in and understand new information 
- Cognitive decline/cognitive impairment: Memory loss and a decreased ability to process new and existing information — often associated with shortened attention span and confusion 
- Cognitive reserve: The ability to find new ways to complete tasks and comprehend information after losing brain function or experiencing cognitive decline 
- Brain plasticity: The brain’s capability to make new connections between neurons (the cells in our brain) to adapt to new experiences, stress, and disease 
Many of the brain health benefits of mental stimulation are thought to be due to it increasing our cognitive reserve . In simpler terms — mental stimulation makes our brains more resilient against age-related cognitive decline and other stressors. As brain plasticity remains intact across your lifetime, there is really no “right time” to begin seeking out mental stimulation to improve your cognition.
It’s no wonder phone applications and computer games that claim to provide mental stimulation have flooded the market. But can these “brain games” actually make you smarter? Let’s take a look at the research on these popular brain teasers.
Do Brain-Training Programs Show Benefits?
Certain types of brain training do appear to give your brain a boost by improving the speed and accuracy with which you think and process information . One study showed that brain-training exercises, performed over a six-week span in older adults, have long-term benefits on cognitive health, driving ability, and other activities of daily life .
However, this brain-training program was not computer-based, and may not extend to the popular phone applications used today. Let’s take a closer look at how these novel, computerized games work.
Digital Brain Games and Cognitive Health
In order to understand how a computer game can translate into everyday life, let’s take a look at an example given by Dr. Henry Mahncke — one of the brains behind the BrainHQ training app.
Imagine a game that requires you to look at an object in the center of a computer screen, while forcing your peripheral vision to locate a flashing item on the edge of the screen. This may sound easy, but it forces your attention to be in two places at once, creating a strain on your ability to focus.
Research shows that, over time, this specific program can directly improve your ability to drive, as processing multiple points of information at once can make you a more aware — and thus safer — driver. In fact, this game can reduce the risk of an at-fault crash by nearly 50% .
While we all could likely benefit from improving our driving skills, how do these brain games work to enhance our brain health? Let’s look at some research behind what these computerized programs can do:
- Heighten overall cognition: Brain-training programs in healthy adults can improve their capability to quickly process information and make decisions, ability to complete tasks, and memory .
- Increase attention and memory: Older adults experienced improvements in comprehension of new information, their attention spans, and their short-term memory after completing brain-training games .
- Treat learning disabilities: Memory training programs may increase visual and verbal memory in children with learning disabilities. The participants also benefited from an improvement in their capacity to make sense of written words .
- Combat cognitive impairment: A 2020 SR/MA of 16 RCTs with 1,543 adults over 60 without cognitive impairment found that computerized brain training programs significantly improved their processing speed, working memory, executive function, and verbal memory, but not attention or visual-spatial processing (97). .
So can these games make you smarter? In short — it’s unclear, as clinical trials are lacking on the direct relationship between brain games and intelligence. Additionally, the research supporting the overall cognitive benefits of digital brain-training programs is mixed, as some studies show little to no improvement in cognitive abilities [14, 15].
One major caveat of computerized brain games is that they may only increase your ability to complete the task at hand, and their benefits may not extend to real-life applications like job performance or focus on daily tasks [16, 17]. More importantly, most of the brain-training games on the market have never been put to the test in clinical trials.
If you’re trying to significantly improve your cognition or combat cognitive decline, your efforts may be better put toward more well-known and research-backed forms of mental stimulation. However, if you’re simply trying out ways to enhance your mental abilities, there’s no reason not to give brain games a try, as they’re a fun and safe form of mental stimulation.
Mentally Stimulating Activities That Can Give Your Brain a Boost
Fortunately, there are other fun, simple, and effective ways to improve your brain health. Taking up photography or crosswords puzzles and joining a book club can give your brain the boost that you’ve been looking for.
In addition, older adults are often those who struggle with cognitive decline (although this isn’t always the case), and it may be particularly challenging for this population to pick up the phone and learn a new technology.
Let’s take a look at the research behind some of the more traditional methods of mental stimulation and see how you can implement them into your life.
Education and Language
Academics and learning a second language appear to be two of the best forms of mental stimulation for improving your brain health and preventing cognitive decline, likely by increasing cognitive reserve [1, 2, 18, 19]. In fact, a 2018 systematic review put education and lifelong learning on a top 10 list of lifestyle interventions for reducing the risk of dementia .
Alzheimer’s patients who engaged in early-life academics or who were fluent in a second language showed increased cognitive performance over those who did not. They were also protected against the severity of cognitive impairment seen in Alzheimer’s disease [19, 21].
Leisure Activities: Board Games, Crossword Puzzles, and Other Pastimes
Cognitive leisure activities like art, writing, and reading may improve overall cognitive functioning and working memory in older adults . To get the most benefit out of your favorite pastimes, it’s important that you’re completing tasks that provide continuous stimulation through new information (think puzzles, board games, Sudoku, and other brain teasers).
In order to see the maximum benefit it’s important that these activities :
- Challenge your mind in ways that normal activities of daily living do not
- Require you to complete tasks that don’t rely on memorizing steps
- Involve some aspect of communicating with others (like in family board games or book clubs)
Crossword puzzles may be particularly beneficial, as one research study looked at those who picked up these puzzles once they started experiencing signs of dementia. Upon follow-up, they showed a 2.5-year delay in rapid memory loss, regardless of their education level or participation in other mentally stimulating activities .
While this delay in mental decline may not seem significant in the grand scheme of things, activities like crossword puzzles are fun, help keep your brain active, and certainly do no harm — so you may as well give them a shot.
Learning a New Task or Skill
Learning new skills, such as taking or teaching a class, learning how to play a new instrument, improving your computer skills, acting, and photography, is an excellent form of mental stimulation. These activities provide a consistent increase in mental activity that can help improve cognition, particularly memory, and cognitive reserve [2, 7, 22, 24].
However, certain activities, like quilting, may provide initial benefit as you’re learning the task, but quickly become procedural (relying on habit) and no longer require mental engagement . This likely reduces the cognitive health benefits that are seen with other activities. Just like leisure activities, in order to benefit from learning new skills it’s essential that you’re completing tasks that continuously build upon existing thought processes.
Deep-Brain Stimulation (NOT a Form of Mental Stimulation)
It’s important that we quickly discuss deep-brain stimulation (DBS), as it may be confused with mental stimulation. While originally developed for Parkinson’s disease, DBS may be helpful for stimulating certain parts of the brain involved in mood to help combat mental illness, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and treatment-resistant depression (National Institute of Mental Health’s Brain Stimulation Therapies).
However, we do not recommend this for improving your mental function as it’s a highly invasive procedure where electrodes are implanted under the skin, and comes with a higher risk of side effects. More importantly, there’s no existing research on its cognitive effects, so it’s best left for those with significant chronic health conditions.
Other Ways to Boost Your Brainpower
While not technically defined as forms of mental stimulation, the cognitive benefits of exercise and mindfulness are too numerous not to discuss.
Physical activity is linked to better brain health, and can help prevent cognitive decline in older adults. Even better, it’s still highly beneficial when taken up later in life, meaning it’s never too late to get started with an exercise regimen . Aerobic exercise has shown to consistently improve cognitive function and memory and increase brain plasticity [6, 7]. However, don’t worry if running isn’t your cup of tea. Other forms of exercise can get your heart pumping while still being fun.
Exergames (mentally stimulating games combined with physical exercise) have been shown to produce cognitive benefit in older adults who were previously sedentary . Additionally, exergames, like tennis, dance, team sports, and golf can provide a great opportunity for social interaction, further warding off cognitive decline.
Dance is also a great way to improve overall attention, memory, and task planning and completion, while still being a fun form of exercise . To get the most out of dancing, try it out for 30-60 minutes, one to three times per week for a few months to see if you notice any cognitive benefit. A great way to engage in dancing is through a group class, which has an added benefit of socialization. However, there are many self-directed online dance programs that you can try.
It’s always best to consult with your physician before implementing a new exercise program, especially in older adults who are susceptible to falls.
Chronic stress can have a negative effect on cognition through an increase in inflammation. Mindfulness, or focusing on the present moment, can help combat stress, reduce inflammation, and reduce brain fog [26, 27]. Furthermore, mindfulness can help improve your self-compassion and overall quality of life, while reducing depression — which is a known risk factor in the development of dementia [18, 28, 29, 30].
A 2021 clinical trial found that a nine-month mindfulness program in adults with mild cognitive impairment showed a beneficial effect on cognition after just three months. Improvements were seen in memory and attention, along with physical changes in areas of the brain indicating increased brain plasticity .
Mindfulness and other forms of meditation are known to have many mental and physical health benefits, making this a simple, safe, and effective way to improve your overall health.
Can Brain Games and Mental Stimulation Improve Your Cognition?
Mental stimulation appears to be effective at increasing aspects of cognition function, like reasoning skills, task completion, memory, and attention. However, some forms may be more beneficial than others, like education, puzzles, and learning new skills. Keep in mind that to get the most benefit out of these activities, you must be consistently learning new information, not just performing repetitive tasks.
Brain training and digital brain games are novel forms of mental stimulation that provide a fun and easy way to potentially increase mental cognition. However, most of the research is preliminary and hasn’t yet been applied to real-life situations, like job performance and focus on daily tasks. While they’re fun and safe, it’s likely better to stick to more traditional forms of mental stimulation when combating more serious conditions like cognitive decline.
Though not technically considered forms of mental stimulation, other activities, like dance, exergames, and mindfulness, can help improve cognitive function, while providing the well-known benefits of exercise and meditation.
If you or a loved one are struggling with difficulties in thinking, memory, or attention span, we have many experienced clinicians at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine who can help you out. You can also explore the role that the gut plays in brain health in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
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