While the underlying principles of cognitive development can be traced as far back as the 19th century, brain training in its modern incarnation really took hold around the turn of the millennium. Otherwise known as cognitive training, by the early 2010s the global brain training industry was worth over $1 billion. The market consists of different exercises, books, classes and, increasingly, games and mobile apps, designed to cater to its central tenets.
Brain training is founded on the notion of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to stimuli in order to improve mental performance.
Famous examples of neuroplasticity in adults range from developing aptitude in playing a musical instrument or learning a new language, to memorizing city lanes as a taxi driver.
When we’re young, our brains are primed to take in new information. Accordingly, learning new skills is easier for younger people. Brain training is particularly popular among older people as it may prove to help arrest the cognitive decline that comes with aging.
Many of the challenges people face around memory retention, reading and problem solving are as a result of weak cognitive skills. This is in much the same way as weak, untrained muscles struggle to lift heavy weights. Brain training, then, is devised to be like taking your brain to the gym. It seeks to strengthen neural pathways, encourage neuroplasticity and keep your faculties sharp.
While there are a whole host of specialized brain training platforms available to explore, many of the most effective brain training exercises are simple and cost free. Here we have a look at some of the tried and tested cognitive training tools accessible to anyone.
Learning and Listening to Music
Music has been proved to have a whole host of cognitive benefits to learners. Researchers have found that learning and playing an instrument actually enlarges the part of the brain known as the corpus callosum, the grey matter which connects the two hemispheres. Other parts of the brain impacted by music include those dealing with hearing, spatial awareness and movement.
Researchers believe that part of the reason playing music encourages neuroplasticity is due to the emotional response it generates in players. Studies show musicians have faster tactile and auditory reaction times versus non-players, irrespective of whether they play piano, guitar or a tuba.
There are many ways to begin learning music, though due to the nuance involved in such a complicated process, you will develop faster and more effectively with the help of a tutor. Many can be found giving classes on Skype or Zoom, and can be found at directory resources such as the Music Teachers Directory.
Playing Cognitively Demanding Games
Another tried and tested way to give your grey matter a workout is by playing games. Games help us think strategically and dynamically which has the knock-on effect of preserving our brain health as we age. While any game offers some benefits in this respect, playing along with others adds the competitive edge that’ll keep you sharp.
Many traditional games can be easily accessed digitally with Blackjack available online in a range of variants. In addition to card games, the board-game Chess can also be enjoyed with the help of a web-browser or mobile device. This game has been praised throughout the ages for its sophistication, and has been used by generals and kings to refine their tactics for hundreds of years.
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Learning New Languages
Engaging with language is one of the most sophisticated mental processes we have to do daily. Becoming multilingual can have a powerful impact on your cognitive health due to the number of new connections it forges in your brain.
Research has shown that multilingual people tend to score higher when tested on their decision making and planning abilities. In addition to this, multilingual people have been shown to exhibit greater critical thinking and creativity, and can focus for longer periods of time.
There are many ways to learn a new language, with apps like Duolingo serving as a great introduction. Their platform is home to 300 million learners studying 19 different languages.
Memrise is a similar app, but consciously aims to include more videos of native speakers talking, to help you learn the natural intonations of each language. Perhaps the gold standard for language learning software is Rosetta Stone, which offers the most comprehensive courses available in your home.