New Year / Fresh Start - Cognitive Engagement
In order to understand what is involved in establishing a fresh start for 2021, I am following the Model of Brain Wellness from the Virtual Brain Health Center. Full disclosure, I am the Director of Brain Wellness for VBHC. Our Model of Brain Wellness clearly lists areas of particular importance in taking care of your brain and also, your body. The last blog covered Physical Activity. This New Year/Fresh Start blog will cover Cognitive Engagement. There are five topics within this category.
How does cognitive engagement help the brain? The general action is the development of new connections and neural pathways. The brain adapts to our environment – good or bad. This is known as neuroplasticity. As I go through the different categories of Cognitive Engagement, I will explain how neuroplasticity occurs with each topic. All-in-all, this increase in neural connections will give us a higher functioning brain.
The life we choose to live can always be full of new content. This means that we are embracing new thoughts, ideas, and actions into our lives. Every time that we try something new, or read something new or see something new, we are feeding our brain. The more experiences we introduce into our lives, stimulates our brains. When something is ‘new’, our brains light up. The energy increases and we start to make new neural pathways.
There are many research studies that have looked at the impact of a novel environment on our brains. Let’s take a look at the workplace. There are many challenges people face when they are working. There are problems to be solved, discoveries to be found, research to be conducted, and money to be made. In a novel environment everyone is challenged to do their best. A novel environment inspires creativity and productivity. Anyone in that work setting, whether the CEO or the front- line worker, benefits from the work energy that exists in a novel environment. Our brain loves to work in that environment.
Over the past four years, I have been honored to be a speaker on brain aging and brain health for OLLI. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is run by the University of Cincinnati. Their catalog of courses is extensive, covering topics for philosophy, travel, science, and history, to meditation, dance and many, many other academic interests. The attendees at my talks are absolutely amazing people. They have friends that attend with them and from what I understand, they have lively discussions after the presentations.
Why does that make it such a good lifestyle practice for your brain? Once you are out of the workplace you don’t have your work family to enter into discussions that are thoughtful or perhaps even rigorous. Learning about new places, ideas, or even about your brain increases cognitive function. Your brain needs that rigor to stay in a high functioning state.
There are actually a couple of different ways I can go with this topic. Let’s start with an organic method of brain fitness. Okay, I have to use myself as an example again. I was fifty-years old when I started graduate school. Needless to say, my brain was not functioning at a graduate school level. The first few weeks I was terrified and sure that I had made a mistake in going back to school. But I really pushed my brain to work better. I learned what time of day I did my best work, different tools and strategies to remember a lot of information, embracing the challenge rather than being afraid of it. It worked! My brain was functioning maybe even better than when I was younger. Graduate school had a global impact on my brain function.
Now you don’t have to go back to school to keep your brain fit. There are a lot of other activities that you can do to get your brain fit. Learn a new language, play a musical instrument, beef up your hobbies so that they are challenging again will push your brain to function better.
The other pathway to get your brain fit is to work on challenging brain games. Don’t discount board games or 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles in this pathway. Online brain games get the most attention. There have been mixed reviews on brain games. Most of the criticism comes from the fact that there is not enough research to show that the games can help you brain function in everyday circumstances. Years ago, Lumosity advertised that their brain games can change your brain for the better. They were doing a lot of research, but they couldn’t definitively prove that their games changed the way that people live their lives. Posit Science’s BrainHQ has research to support that their gaming did make a difference in people’s lives and that the results lasted for many years. The particular exercise is Double Decision. The research study is known as the ACTIVE study and it has stood the test of time.
Instead of having a global impact on your brain, brain games target specific functions. They help you improve concentration, attention, focus, memory, speed of processing, and peripheral vision. But these games cannot be the only brain health exercise you practice. They have to be done within a brain healthy lifestyle program.
The brain is very efficient at pruning connections that aren’t used. It really does operate on the ‘Use It or Lose It ‘, philosophy. As you get older, your brain is experiencing many declines due to aging and wear and tear. You can create new cells and connections. You can capitalize on neuroplasticity – always. But you cannot get complacent. We are losing brain cells as we get older. In order to keep our brain in tip-top shape, we must continually challenge it. It isn’t as bad as that sounds. When we get into the routine of a healthy brain lifestyle, we are automatically creating new cells and connections all the time.
How Can We Do All of These Things?
I am glad you asked! This Cognitive Engagement topic is one part of the Brain Wellness model from the Virtual Brain Health Center. There are classes that engage each piece of this model. You can try to move ahead with brain wellness on your own. But your brain will thrive when you are doing these brain health programs with others. These lifestyle changes can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Preventing Alzheimer’s and creating a high functioning brain are within your grasp. You can check out the class list for February 2021 at www.virtualbrainhealthcenter.com