Cerebral Callings

Forget the gym — this mental workout guide will get your brain buffed in no time.

The brain is a beautiful and intricate organ: determining who we are and how we understand our world. The brain is the centre of our intellectual, emotional and physical capabilities. With over two hundred billion neurons and several hundred trillion connections, the complexity of the brain determines how each one of us is distinctly ourselves.As much as our brains shape us, we can also change our brains. The brain’s elasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, allows for exciting possibilities in improving our brain health.So what can we do to keep our brains in good working order? What are the general principles of exercising, stimulating and keeping our brains active? Applying the following criteria to any activity in which you’re engaged will help give your brain a mental workout:

Active Sustained Engagement
Your mind needs to be actively set to the task at hand and be fully focused over a sustained period of time. Completing the occasional puzzle or multi-tasking during the workout are not realistic forms of brain fitness.

Instead, focus on a specific task or even a detail of that task for prolonged and frequent periods of time. For instance, try dedicating 20 minutes several times per week to focusing on only this task. This condition of “working out” our brains through precise, repetitive processes is how people achieve success in training for athletics, acquiring new languages or learning a musical instrument.

Effortful Processing
This is about finding the sweet spot of how challenged your brain needs to be while performing the task in which you are actively engaged. If a task is too easy, your brain is spinning wheels, with no effective stimulation. If a task is too difficult, stimulation is unattainable because the task is beyond your mental reach. Effortful processing means finding a point of meaningful strain where you are challenged enough for the task to be difficult, but not so challenged that mastery
is impossible.

Learn a new trick! If you are already skilled or practised enough at a task that you can do it on autopilot, your brain is not being stimulated. If you’d like to work out your brain by engaging in a hobby that is already familiar to you, add a dimension that is novel or that makes the activity more complex. This takes a task from cruise-control status to brain workout status.

Think of this as adding on extra mental weight, just like adding more pounds, reps or new exercises once a physical workout becomes routine.

Some sample tasks for working out your brain:
—Learning a new language.
—Puzzles that are progressively more challenging, e.g.,
logic games or learning chess.
—Memorizing poems or scripts.
—New styles of dance, sport or other physical activity.
—Meditation or other forms of mindfulness.

As the director of the Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program in Toronto, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young holds a B.Sc. in child studies from the University of Guelph and a master’s degree in school psychology from the University of Toronto. Diagnosed with a learning disability at an early age, Arrowsmith-Young shares her compelling journey of cognitive transformation in her bestselling book
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.

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Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

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