Why we should integrate regular brain training into our everyday lives
Belly, legs and bum, biceps, triceps or back. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, we regularly train our bodies through fitness and sport. We do so to be attractive and to stay healthy. However, very few of us do targeted and regular brain training to strengthen our cognitive abilities. According to Dr Melanie Robertson, this is “a major failure”. After all, our ‘CPU’ also needs regular training. Such training keeps you healthy, makes everyday life easier, and is also really fun!
A human being can memorise a shuffled deck of 52 cards in an incredible 12.74 seconds. Sounds impossible and it (almost) is! But not for mastermind Shijir-Erdene Bat-Enkh. The 21-year-old Mongolian still holds the world record in this supreme discipline at the Memory Championships. Reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen is said to be able to recall around 1,000 positions in this game of kings. The best memory athletes can memorise up to 100 words in just five minutes. These are impressive feats of the human brain.
But what do all these feats have in common? “Today we know from science that such peak achievements are acquired through regular training of cognitive abilities. At the same time, this also means that basically everyone is capable of developing an excellent memory,” explains Dr Melanie Robertson, clinical and health psychologist and neuro-psychologist at Park Igls.
“TRAIN YOUR BRAIN REGULARLY AND IN A TARGETED WAY!”
Of course, practically speaking, we mere mortals hardly ever need such extraordinary skills as memorising a deck of playing cards in our private or professional lives. The point is nevertheless salient in terms of our lives and our health. Robertson: “Train your brain regularly and in a targeted way! This promotes mental skills and keeps you fit. Similar to untrained muscles, we know that the performance of our cognitive faculties also declines with age. We can counter this through regular training.” If we work hard to ensure that our outwardly visible body parts remain supple and fit, why do we do so little in relation to our mental fitness?
Working on cognitive abilities and visual-spatial perception is particularly important because we are confronted with increasing speed, sensory overload, pressure, stress and massively increased media consumption in our everyday lives. Ideally, memory-boosting exercises should begin in childhood. “It’s well established scientifically that even in children, there is a correlation between physical activity and the ability to process complex cognitive processes,” says Robertson.
RELEVANCE IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Let’s be honest, we all know that there are situations in everyday life where we forget. Things from the shopping or to-do list, appointments, birthdays, phone numbers we have trouble remembering, or names of people who have been introduced to us at a business meeting or social gathering. “This,” Robertson says, “is not fundamentally concerning in any way; it’s normal and deeply human.” However, through training and special techniques, exercise and healthy eating, these skills and our brain fitness can be greatly improved with positive effects. In doing so, everyday life becomes easier and our brains become fitter. And medically speaking? Through targeted training or new experiences, new neuronal pathways and networks are formed, new connections (synapses) between neurons are created, communication between neurons is improved and strengthened, and efficiency is increased. This process is called synaptic plasticity or neuroplasticity.
THE POWER TO INFLUENCE THEM
One possible maxim when it comes to potential dementia prevention is: The more synapses we form, the better. Cognitive training combined with a healthy lifestyle can also reduce the risk of dementia. “Only a very small, single-digit percentage of all dementia cases have a genetic component,” explains Robertson. As an expert, she is convinced that we are not helplessly at the mercy of our genes. Instead, we do have the power to influence them and thus to act and be agents of change.
BRAIN FITNESS IS A POPULAR OFFERING
In the extensive weekly programme that guests can take advantage of during their stay at Park Igls, brain fitness is a popular offering. Dr Robertson leads these group sessions personally and gives, among other things, individual tips for everyday life on how best to train the brain.
“Guests (of all ages, by the way) come to me in regard to the aforementioned situations and want to work out techniques and strategies.” How does this work? “All of our daily lives are increasingly associated with pressure and with a fast pace. This requires constant adaptation and enormous flexibility. Many of our guests are or were professionally employed in very demanding positions and tasks that required or still require a high degree of brain power. Professions such as judges, diplomats, doctors, top managers, pilots or entrepreneurs often require a very high level of education. These professionals are often multilingual and master demanding activities. But if someone has excellent cognitive abilities in the area of working memory, for example, this does not necessarily mean that their action planning or focused attention skills are also equally well developed. In the sessions, we discuss weak points as well as examples of how to improve them with practice while also concentrating on strengths. You’ll really notice the difference, we promise!”
Dr Robertson: “Everyone forgets something every once in a while, it’s nothing to worry about. If, however, you perceive subjective impairments, such as frequent forgetfulness in certain situations, you can have this looked into neuropsychologically. We of course offer this kind of check-up at Park Igls. Here, we start with a standardised testing procedure that takes about an hour and a half to complete. This can also have preventative benefits as it first and foremost serves to take away worry.”
Dr Robertson: It’s very common, especially for people with high levels of education, to be able to cleverly hide cognitive decline, or at least try to do so. In particular, such individuals often display extremely little willingness to have this decline medically clarified. A good strategy in partnership can then be to say: “Come on, honey, let’s just both do a neuropsychological exam together.”
Dr Robertson: “There are many ways in which we can challenge and train our brains with different techniques. Regularity is essential, and as with physical training, it is important to avoid routine. Dancing, playing a game of chess, reading a foreign language book, learning a new language or solving tricky brain teasers – these are all things that help make our brains fitter. These activities bring us joy, too.”
Dr Robertson: “Poor nutrition, little exercise, alcohol in excess or smoking are known pathogens that damage the brain and destroy nerve cells. Everything we know from the pillars of Modern Mayr Medicine promotes our health. Getting sufficient sleep and drinking enough also have a very positive effect on cognitive performance.”
Dr Robertson: “Just stay curious, be inquisitive and keep moving – it’s a simple but wonderful and effective recipe!”
5 GREAT EXERCISES FOR THE BRAIN THAT ARE REALLY EASY TO INTEGRATE INTO OUR EVERYDAY LIFE, EFFECTIVE AND ALSO FUN
It certainly sounds a lot easier than it is. Tip: Don’t start out with the name of this community in the south of the island of Anglesey in northwest Wales, which has 58 letters: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogoch. But drop us a line if you can manage this toughest of words.
And then try to recall the content of the newscast. This is a popular practice in foreign language training and is a great brain fitness exercise.
Meeting people on a regular basis is a great practice in any event. Are your social contacts from different age groups, perhaps also from different cultural backgrounds, and are foreign languages possibly required for conversation? Fantastic, this is the best kind of brain fitness.
Crossword puzzles or Sudoku help make the brain fitter. So why not consciously work on such a puzzle at least once a week? Such puzzles offer a varied workout for the brain.
Vocabulary doesn’t usually just fall into your lap, you have to work at it and that’s a good thing! When we learn, our brains are challenged and we are also rewarded with better foreign language skills. Ten new vocabulary words a day, you can do that easily!