Use It Or Lose It: Does Exercising Your Brain Improve Its Performance?

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It’s a new year and I hope everyone had a great festive season. My girl and I had a very well-deserved break, consisting mostly of meeting up with friends, afternoon walks, and me watching her attempt to finish her new 2000-piece puzzle of Las Vegas. I think she was a little ambitious with this one, but it certainly kept her mind occupied over the break. My girl’s a big fan of puzzles, brainteasers, and anything that remotely challenges her to think a little outside of the box. Although, something tells me her motivation is driven more by boredom rather than self-improvement. It’s also no coincidence that she’s not very good at sitting still, making these activities a perfect hobby for a busy mind. But is that all they’re good for? A simple distraction for restless legs, or is there perhaps more to them than that?

Just as exercising the body improves physical performance, research suggests that exercising the brain can physically alter its structure and improve cognitive function. The brain has a remarkable ability to modify its structure and function in response to learning. This is known as brain plasticity and the basic concept is quite straight forward. You can think of it from a “use it or lose it” perspective. As you learn something new, it makes sense to assume that there are changes occurring in the body. These changes may include physical changes, such as getting stronger in response to a new workout program, or skill-related changes, such as learning to play the guitar.

However, changes aren’t limited to the body.

There are also physical, functional, and even chemical changes that occur in the brain as you learn. The brain uses specialized nerve cells (or neurons) that are responsible for carrying messages from one region of the brain to another. Some of these neurons also carry messages down the spinal cord and connect with other neurons that control our muscles. You can think of these neurons as telephone wires that form connections throughout the body that relay important information. When the brain is stimulated or challenged with new information, it changes the wiring between these neuronal connections and can even form new connections. Together, these changes account for the development or improvement of a new skill.

It was once thought that any loss of brain function was irreversible.

However, we now know that all brains are plastic. For instance, we know that cognitive function declines with age yet, all brains are able to improve to some degree or another when they are stimulated or exposed to new challenges. However, without sufficiently stimulating your brain with unfamiliar or even surprising information, be it through learning a new skill or simply solving crossword puzzles, it will eventually begin to decline. The good news is that your brain continues to alter its connections throughout your life in response to mental activity, which means that you are able to, to at least some extent, improve how your brain functions. Although, it’s important to note that not all learned behaviours transfer to new situations. For instance, experience with working on complicated puzzles is unlikely to improve your guitar skills. Thus, what is learned may only apply to that particular context.

Like I said, my girl is a fan of puzzles. Thankfully, these keep her pretty busy and for the most part, out of trouble. This may not be your scene, and that’s ok. Perhaps you like working with your hands, or you’ve always wanted to learn how to play an instrument? It can be as simple as adjusting the difficulty level of a task you’ve already mastered to make it more demanding for your brain.  Whatever it is, it’s never too late to learn. Worst-case scenario, it keeps you out of trouble, in the meantime at least.

4 COMMENTS

  1. According to the research I have seen, solving puzzles gives you basically no other benefits aside from getting better at solving the same puzzles. A quick search turned up this article: https://michellemillerphd.com/neuroscience-in-translation-why-use-it-or-lose-it-is-a-bad-idea/

    “The myriad challenges associated with figuring out the real causes are summarized beautifully in this article by research heavy hitter Timothy Salthouse, who has made massive contributions to contemporary theories of mental aging. On balance, Salthouse concludes, the evidence that “using it” prevents age-related decline is surprisingly weak.”

    • Hi Alexey.

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing the article. I was more trying to get across that the brain can change in response to learning and new challenges. I didn’t mean to imply that simply doing puzzles would be sufficient to enhance brain performance, although I can see how that might come across like that. Thanks for your comments and I will make some adjustments to make sure that it’s more clear.

      Happy day!

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