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It seems like we’re always being told about the latest “brain food” that supports our most important organ — but what about brain-boosting activities? How do we increase our cognitive function on a daily basis? Well, it turns out that keeping a sharp mind doesn’t have to mean constant study and mental excursion. There are simple (and even enjoyable) ways that you may already be sharpening your mental focus without even realizing it.
Read a novel.
Okay, maybe the not-so-shocking reveal is that reading is good for your brain. But the way in which it improves your thinking is pretty interesting. Reading fiction improves our ability to empathize with characters and use our imaginations similarly to how our muscle memory works during athletics. Neurons in our left temporal cortex are activated and engage our mind in embodied cognition, which is the act of imagining that we’re doing something we aren’t. You might be wondering, “What’s the benefit of tricking our brain?”
Studies have shown that reading fiction helps improve our theory of mind, too. And that means that we can better understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own. So, long story short: reading helps our brains become better at empathizing and understanding others — and who doesn’t want that?
Exercise on a regular basis.
While it’s no surprise that we’re pro-exercising, it’s kind of cool that it doesn’t just improve physical health. Exercise has been proven to increase our brain power and even help to create new neurons. One study found that endurance athletes had greater connections between different regions of the brain. This included the frontal cortex, which is central to cognitive functions like the ability to switch between tasks, planning and decision-making.
Make meditation part of your routine.
Who knew that folding your legs and meditating could actually help your cortex fold better, too? Let us explain. A 2012 report showed that heavy meditators have larger amounts of gyrification, or “folding” of the cortex. This unique function may allow the brain to process information faster than those who don’t practice meditation. Maybe even more interestingly, there was a direct correlation between the amount of gyrification and the number of years practicing meditation.
Turn up your tunes — they’re good for you.
We already know that listening to music comes with a myriad of awesome benefits. But it also specifically strengthens the right hemisphere of the brain and changes the structure of it. It engages the auditory areas of the brain (obviously) but also uses large-scale neural networks. These networks can reach all the way into our motor function areas of the brain, meaning that music and movement are closely intertwined.
Maybe less surprisingly, the limbic or emotional areas of the brain are involved in rhythm and tonality processing.
Grab a pencil and doodle a drawing.
Sometimes you just have to go back to basics, like when we were kids. It’s been shown that doodling actually helps us to concentrate on otherwise boring activities or conversations. (That’s why you’ll find so many meetings filled with drawings in the margins of papers.) Instead of opting out and full-on daydreaming, doodling allows our brains to blow off some steam and remain focused on the task at hand. So maybe it’s fair to say this last activity is less of a brain-booster and more of a brain-appeaser.
So the next time you’re looking for ways to up the ante on your mental cognitive health, crank up your favorite song and dance around or jump on the treadmill for a good long jog!