The start of a new year often inspires a flurry of resolutions related to things we plan to change or improve. Many people jump on the fitness wagon and sign up for a gym membership to help them shed the holiday pounds. Others resolve to tackle debt or save money. Some people resolve to change jobs or start volunteering to fulfill their desire to help others. Few people consider optimizing brain function, however, because they do not realize the remarkable changeability of the brain and they have not experienced the rewarding fun they can have while doing it! Brain (cognitive) function development is an excellent addition to the list of goals for 2021.
An internet search on brain plasticity (neuroplasticity) returns millions of results these days. Researchers have shown how our brain structures can change in many studies. For example, a prominent one involves a longitudinal study of the changes in the brains of London taxi drivers. These are elite cabbies who navigate the city without GPS or maps but rather rely on their memories to whisk passengers to and from their destinations using the shortest, fastest route while considering the traffic patterns. The studies showed that these cabbies entered the training program with average brain function overall, but the hippocampus (key to memory storage and recall) underwent a noticeable size increase as cabbies completed the training. This and many other studies give us hope and assurance that brain change is possible. The key to change is knowing what to do and following through.
Attention and memory are foundational brain functions that can be strengthened through intentional, targeted activities done right in the comfort of one’s home. Of course, improving brain function involves a commitment much like that of improving physical fitness. Adding short daily sessions most days of the week can add up to noticeable change, provided the fun activities stretch brain functioning and produce a little “mental sweat.”
One good activity easily done at home involves a deck of playing cards and a timer. Sort the cards into either two piles (black/red) or four piles (suits – hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades). Time the activity using a stopwatch or timer. The goal is to record the time and repeat the activity while striving for a faster time. To increase the challenge level, say what the card is aloud before setting it on its pile or add a constant to each card before laying it down (for example: add five. As the two of hearts is laid down, say “seven”). Turn on a compelling show and complete the activity while deliberately blocking out the show to improve the attention system. Sometimes people enjoy working with a partner. In this instance, use two decks of cards and see who can correctly sort the deck into four suits the fastest while reciting the ABCs. Fun but challenging is the key to helping the brain retain and improve its function.
As we look to this new year, why not add changing brain function to the list? QCBN
By Jen Beyst, MCFDT
For more information call West Yavapai Guidance Clinic 928-445-5211 x3157
Jen Beyst, MCFDT, is the executive director of the Cognitive Function Development Institute and a consultant for West Yavapai Guidance Clinic.