Once a week, I do a few things some folks might find crazy...
I close my eyes at the bathroom sink and brush my teeth with my non-dominant hand. Then, I get dressed in the dark. Most of the time, it works out pretty well... (At least I hope no one can tell when I get dressed in the dark.)
This small, once-a-week change to my normal routine gives my brain an actual workout.
Of course, most folks think of physical workouts to keep our bodies fit... But your brain needs to stay in shape, too. And you can beef up your brain's fitness by doing silly things like my weekly routine.
You see, our brains are filled with communication lines known as neurons. These neurons send electrical signals throughout the body. They're responsible for initiating every action that we take and every thought we have.
That's why I'm getting into neuron aerobics today... neurobics.
It turns out, you can use your brain's natural ability to produce proteins, called neurotrophins, to protect and improve your neurons and help fight aging's effects on the mind. You do that by engaging each of your five senses in unconventional ways.
By activating underused neural pathways – like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand while your eyes are closed – our neural connections get stronger and more flexible.
It's fun, too... There are three main ways to create a neurobic activity that will stimulate growth in your brain. Involve one or more of your senses in a non-typical way – like getting dressed for work with your eyes closed. Engage your attention in an activity by choosing something fun, surprising, or emotion-evoking – like walking through nature on a new trail. Or change the way you do a routine activity in an unexpected way like rearranging your living room furniture.
Studies show that neurobics helps with things like:
- Migraine pain – A 2021 study out of the Yoga-Samskrutham University in Florida found that practicing psycho neurobics – like vocalizing an "O" sound – reduces the number of migraine attacks, relieves symptoms, lowers migraine intensity, and even cures a migraine.
- Insomnia – A meta-analysis from the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in New York found that neurobics are a possible remedy for insomnia.
- Diabetes – In 2021, researchers found that using neurobics and positive affirmations improved the health of individuals with diabetes, in conjunction with their typical medications.
- Memory and Depression – A 2019 study found neurobics to be an effective tool to improve memory and reduce depression in a group of elderly adults living in nursing homes.
Getting Your Neurobic Brain Workout Started
Start your new brain-building game routine with these five fun activities:
1. Play "name that sound." Record sounds on your phone around the house, park, or grocery store. Play them back for your friends or family and have each person try to "name that sound." You can also buy a sound-effects CD or cassette (there are lots available, like these two: one and two) and play the game.
The science: Using auditory clues to identify sounds triggers your visual-memory centers and strengthens their connection to your brain's auditory-processing centers.
2. Wake up to a new smell. Change your usual morning-smell association – vanilla, citrus, peppermint, and rosemary all make refreshing substitutions. Keep a bit of your favorite aroma in an airtight container on your bedside table for a week and release and sniff it when you first wake up. Enjoy a few more whiffs as you bathe and dress for the day.
The science: By linking a new odor with your morning routine, you activate new neural pathways.
3. Awaken your inner artist with strange views. On your refrigerator and walls, turn pictures of your family, calendar, and clocks upside down or sideways.
The science: Your brain is quite literally of two minds when it comes to processing visual information. The analytical and verbal part of your brain (called the "left brain") tries to label an object after just a brief glance: "table," "chair," "child." The "right brain," in contrast, perceives spatial relationships and uses nonverbal cues.
When you look at a familiar picture right-side up, your left brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention to other things. When the picture is upside down, the quick labeling strategy doesn't work – and your right-brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture.
The strategy of looking at things upside down is a key component for awakening the latent artist in us, as described by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
4. Touch up your wardrobe. With eyes closed, choose your clothing based on texture. For example, make it a silky-smooth day, or a rough, wooly day. Use your fingers, cheeks, lips, and even your feet to select your outfit.
The science: Extensive practice using the fingers to make fine distinctions between objects or textures causes expansion and rewiring of the brain areas involved in touch. This has been observed in monkeys trained to use their fingers to get food and in brain-imaging experiments in blind human Braille readers.
5. Blindfolded taste test. Identify food using four of your five senses: smell, taste, touch, and sound. A food's flavor includes its texture, aroma, temperature, spiciness, and even sound when handled correctly.
The science: Smell and taste play a huge part in our enjoyment of food. But texture plays a role, too. Focusing on a food's texture helps to create a different neural route. The tongue and lips are among the most sensitive parts of the body (even more sensitive than the fingertips).
Or you can do what I do and walk backward from time to time, listen to things using only your left ear, and even attempt to write with your non-dominant hand.
What We're Reading...
- 14 weird brain exercises to help you get smarter.
- Something different: Striking color display in invasive chameleons.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 7, 2022