We all have areas of our cognitive capacity we want or need to work on, whether it’s our mental clarity, attention span, memory or general intelligence levels. Here, I’ve outlined the best brain games for 10 different cognitive goals. Find yours and turn whatever cognitive deficiency or desire you might have into your greatest mental strength.
1. To boost intelligence, read for 30 minutes every day
We have three types of intelligence: crystallized intelligence, or the accumulation of knowledge, facts and skills; fluid intelligence, or how well we reason and solve problems regardless of what we know; and emotional intelligence, or how well we respond to individuals and in social situations.
Reading, especially long-form narratives like books, for at least a half hour every day is the best way to boost all three. I’m sure you already read plenty of e-mails, texts, social media posts and work memos, but engaging in an actual story for at least 30 minutes will increase activity across the brain, improving your overall neuronal connectivity and the integrity of your white matter tracts.
2. To improve your memory, master a new word every day
When I was young, I used to wrench my parents’ big dictionary out of our bookshelf, sit down and scroll through it, looking for new words to learn. Today, I do the same thing, without the heavy lifting, using the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day app to learn a new word every day.
Mastering new vocabulary boosts working memory, which is an asset of our short-term memory that’s central to both our basic memory and overall intelligence. Because working memory has a limited capacity, expanding it by learning new vocabulary helps us to communicate more efficiently and creates new ways to retain more information over time.
3. If you only have 5 minutes, play a computerized brain training game
My favorite computerized brain-training app is BrainHQ. Not only is it clever, easy to use and entertaining, BrainHQ was also found to be the most effective for cognitive training by independent researchers who ranked the 18 most popular computerized brain-training programs. What’s great about the app is that you can also choose which cognitive skill you want to hone, whether it’s your memory, navigation, spatial orientation, cognitive speed, intelligence,
attention or focus.
4. If you’re worried about dementia, learn a new language
Language is one of evolution’s greatest gifts to the human brain. But fascinating studies now show the act of learning a new tongue can stave off dementia by years. By comparing people who speak one language to those who are bilingual, researchers found that people who can speak more than one language develop dementia later in life on average than the monolinguals, even though the latter group tends to have more formal education.
Don’t have time to learn a whole new language? That’s OK. Even memorizing foreign words without committing to picking up the tongue can help prevent cognitive decline. My father was Swedish— both of his parents were born in Stockholm—so I enjoy memorizing new Swedish words and phrases to help keep my mind sharp.
5. To train your brain to better handle stress, become an artist
Whether you like to paint, draw, sculpt, take photos, knit, weave, throw pottery or any other artistic pursuit, making art increases cognitive capacity in ways other brain games do not. Producing visual art, for example, has been shown to increase functional connectivity across the different areas of the brain, making us more psychologically resilient to stress. Artists also have more gray matter on both sides of their brain—not just the right side, which has been associated with creativity—increasing connectivity to help them better handle complexity and crisis.
Doodling has similar cognitive benefits, especially if you flip whatever you’re drawing upside down. It may sound odd, but the method helps better integrate the right- and left-hand sides of the brain, making you more mentally adept and nimble. Former NFL offensive guard Ed White loves to draw images upside down with his dominant hand, then recreate them right side up with his nondominant hand—a total creative challenge for the brain!
6. To fight age-related cognitive decline, volunteer
Studies show being philanthropic can help prevent and even reverse age-related volume loss in certain areas of the brain like the hippocampus. My grandmother, who lived to the amazing age of 95, volunteered regularly at a hospital for 45 years, which I strongly feel was the reason she stayed so cognitively sharp and healthy later in life. Volunteering on a regular basis also lowers stress, feelings of depression and anxiety, while boosting overall well-being, all of which have been shown to help counter age-related mental decline.
7. To grow new brain cells, tap your inner keats
Writing creatively—whether it’s a story, a poem, a limerick, a love letter, a diary entry or anything else expressive—increases the size of the hippocampus by growing new brain cells. This occurs because writing challenges the brain continually to come up with words and create new ideas. Writing by hand also activates multiple parts of the brain, improving thinking, language and idea generation. Whenever I want to commit something to memory, I write it down, even if I’m in a lecture or meeting where a laptop would be easier.
8. To hone your and attention, do a crossword, jigsaw puzzle or sudoku
These three games all require you to focus on words, puzzle pieces or numbers in order to solve the problem, which, if you play often enough, will boost your attention span. In fact, studies show people who do crosswords and sudoku on a regular basis have similar cognitive capabilities to those 10 years younger. Unlike some cognitive-training exercises like computerized brain games, which usually have a specified time limit, you can easily spend hours immersed in a difficult puzzle or numbers game. My fiancé, Mark, just gave me a complicated jigsaw puzzle of the different dog breeds that I can’t wait to spend the weekend completing!
9. To increase your mental clarity, take a different way to work
Every time you take a new route, even if it’s just turning right at a light where you normally make a left, it challenges your brain, increasing your gray matter and ability to focus, think, remember and learn, all of which will improve mental clarity. The strongest evidence of this comes from a study conducted over a decade ago on London taxi drivers, whose brains were compared to those similar in age, education and intelligence who didn’t drive taxis. Researchers found the taxi drivers had significantly larger hippocampi because they were constantly taking new ways around the city of some 25K streets. The longer a taxi driver had been working, the bigger his hippocampus was, according to the study.
Another way taking the road less traveled increases clarity: you’re more likely to be mindful when you do. Whenever you take a new route, it forces you to notice new surroundings, keeping you grounded in the moment and what you’re doing at the present time.
10. To challenge your brain every day, just try something new
Many brain games have the same objective, which is to learn something new. Even if I didn’t detail one of the ways you like
to learn, anything you can do to pursue a new skill or an area of knowledge, whether it’s listening to a TED Talk, trying a new recipe, taking a golf lesson or watching a video on a subject you know nothing about, will help stimulate your brain and increase your cognitive power and performance.
I love to listen to podcasts on new neurology studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association and news segments that summarize the day’s events from the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily. Find your passion and pursue it for a healthier mind and a smarter, healthier brain.
Excerpted from the book BIOHACK YOUR BRAIN: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power by Kristen Willeumier with Sarah Toland. Copyright © 2020 by Willeumier Enterprises, LLC. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.