“The enemy of neuroplasticity is status quo thinking, or going on auto-pilot,” says Jennifer Zientz, MS, CCC/SLP, head of clinical services at Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Cultivating curiosity and being an active participant in life keeps neuroplasticity going.”
Let’s back it up—what exactly is neuroplasticity? In layman’s terms, it’s the brain’s ability to wire and rewire itself as it learns and expands cognition. Christine Gall, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of anatomy and neurobiology at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, explains that our brains contain specialized cells, or neurons, that are responsible for sending and receiving information. Much like a circuit board in a computer, our brains create networks of neurons that transmit electrical activity when we engage in just about anything. These charges, AKA synapses, are critical for learning and memory.
“We now know that mental activity can influence ‘electrical coupling,’ or the strengths of these points of contact between cells,” says Dr. Gall. As we take in new experiences, create habits, and develop new behaviors, some of these synapses become stronger while others become weaker. When they aren’t engaged enough (or at all), Dr. Gall says new memories won’t form or are forgotten all together.
TL;DR: The more neuroplasticity your brain has, the better your memory and cognition might be as you age. Yes, yoga and vacuuming your carpets can foster brain health. But trying new things, thinking critically about experiences, and expressing curiosity are also powerful exercises for the brain.
“When people stop engaging in deeper level thinking, innovative thinking, novel experiences—whatever their interests are—that results in status quo function,” says Zientz. “We can be healthy people and not do anything challenging to us, but we won’t be leveraging neuroplasticity in a healthy way.”
Tired of puzzles? Here are 4 other memory-boosting exercises for the brain, with options for every age.
1. Activate your inner movie (or book) critic
Sometimes there’s nothing better than a relaxing Netflix binge. But if you want to put those synapses to work, set down the remote and really reflect on what you’re observing. “After a movie, stop and think about all the bigger messages or themes that were conveyed,” says Zientz. “As you think about abstract concepts, you’ll engage your frontal network.”
Whether it’s a film, a book, or the entire first season of Bridgerton, activate your inner critic and take a few minutes to analyze the lessons and larger concepts you just consumed. Better yet, watch with a friend and discuss what you enjoyed, how you made it feel, and what you learned. This will help keep you sharp in the long run, rather than always vegging out passively.
2. Have kids? Get them involved with exercises for the brain
It’s never too early to start strengthening neuroplasticity. For parents with children, Zientz recommends striking up a meaningful conversation after school or around the dinner table. “I like to ask my own kids to describe their day using three different words,” she says. “Even if they’re not the most complex concepts, it makes them stop and think. And it’s a way for parents to engage with their kids, which helps them build confidence in interacting with adults.”
Pro tip: Encourage your kids to use different words each day. If they frequently return to adjectives like “boring,” or “long,” tell them to describe their days using other words. Having them think outside the box will better engage their brains and flex those memory-building muscles.
3. Think like a reporter
This is the adult version of the previous tip: rather than describing your day in three words, try and condense your day into a headline.
“Think about how you would condense a complex idea into a provocative or catchy statement,” says Zientz. Our frontal networks, which are responsible for sensory, motor and cognitive functions, are activated when we’re forced to think in concise ways. This should go beyond just stating how you went about your day—get creative with how you summarize your experiences to better harness that brainpower.
4. Gain a different perspective
It’s natural to surround ourselves with friends who have the same views or scroll through news that’s aligned with our politics. Most of us seek information that supports our own thinking—but that echo chamber can throw our brains into status quo function.
Instead, purposefully engage in conversations with others whose views oppose your own. (Say, a family member who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for COVID-19 vaccination—or vice versa.) The goal isn’t to pick a fight, but to deepen and enrich your own understanding.
“It’s not about changing your mind or somebody else’s mind, it’s just about trying to understand,” Zientz says. “Exercising that flexibility takes cognitive effort.” So family reunion debates are actually good exercises for the brain—who knew?