Keeping Our Intellects Sharp

Do We Really Need to Train our Brains?

Ever walk into a room to retrieve something but end up blankly looking around with no recollection of what you were looking for? Have you ever run into an acquaintance on the street whose name you are certain that you know, but embarrassingly can’t seem to access it from the depths of your brain? Do you ever feel tongue-tied because you can’t find the appropriate word to complete a seemingly simple sentence?

Chances are that you’re human, and so the answer to at least one of these questions is yes. However, don’t fret. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re part of the collective population whose IQ scores haven’t just levelled out over the last 10 years, but have actually been dropping. Yep, you read that correctly. The world is becoming less intelligent, and unless we’re willing to take action against our unified cerebral decline, we could end up with a fairly dimwitted society.

The IQ Decline

So what gives? Beginning in the 1930s, worldwide IQs were on the rise due to access to modern luxuries such as nutritious foods, proper education and overall pleasant living conditions. Things seemed to be going pretty well for society in terms of our intellect as we became more comfortable. But as that comfort has turned to complacency, it’s become apparent that perhaps we are a little too cozy.

There’s no doubt that advances in technology have improved our daily lives in dramatic ways and have allowed us as a species to live better and longer lives than the days of yore. But what about the effect that modern tech has had on our abilities to be thoughtful, intelligent beings? Has the era of using Google and Wikipedia ruined our memories and problem-solving skills? Does watching the film adaptation of a book really decrease our mental capabilities?

According to most scientists, the answer to all of these questions is a fairly resounding “yes”, which should come as a surprise to no one who has been paying attention to the relatively new fad in fitness that has nothing to do with beefing up your arms or trimming your waistline. Brain training apps and websites – which promise to help strengthen your cognitive abilities in exchange for the cash in your wallet – are a multi-million dollar a year business, and for good reason. The fear of developing some form of dementia as we get older is certainly warranted, and most studies have in fact shown that individuals who keep that three pound mass between their ears in tip-top shape have a decreased chance of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s.

With so many brain training apps on the market today and the industry booming, you’d think that the science would surely back them up. However, many neuroscientists have criticized these types of services, claiming that users tend to simply feel smarter from engaging in the activities on offer, rather than achieving real cognitive benefits. This is likely due to the fact that most of the games are repetitive and offer similar situations that can be learned and mastered over time, which can lead to less than desirable specific results, and more money in the creators’ pockets.

It’s not to say that these kinds of apps can’t be useful, as many people enjoy them and may even find that they improve their brain strength, but in our modern tech-driven world, we too often forget that there are some very solid and time-tested ways to work on our attention spans, memories, problem-solving and linguistic skills by engaging in activities that were around long before our IQs began to hit the skids.

Classic Game Changers

While the effectiveness of new and trendy brain training activities is still up for debate, it is widely accepted that engaging in a wide variety of classic games such as puzzles, poker and chess can help increase memory, logic and focus. Using rational thought in these types of activities has been proven to increase neuroplasticity, which is a fancy way of saying that these games can help the brain stay organized, understand cause and effect, learn and retain new information, see things from alternate view points and identify patterns. Increased neuroplasticity also helps decrease depression and anxiety. Simply put: it’s pretty darn important, and luckily there are some fun ways in which you can ensure your brain is up to snuff.

One of the oldest and most time-tested ways to work out your brain while also enjoying time alone or with a group is to put together a puzzle. Essentially a puzzle is a brain teaser that requires thought, logic and planning to complete successfully. Jigsaw puzzles depend upon organizational skills and imagination, and everyone knows that putting that last piece in its proper place oozes with gratification. Puzzles are a great way to exercise your brain at any age, and have been long-time learning tools for toddlers who are familiarizing themselves with spatial awareness.

Crossword puzzles are also extremely advantageous for the brain because they nurture different areas that aren’t necessarily hit on when playing brain games like Sudoku. Specifically, playing around with different words – some which fit but also those that don’t fit the puzzle – increases your vocabulary and keeps you abreast of less common words that you might not encounter in your everyday life. Word games like crossword puzzles and Scrabble also help increase one’s patience, focus and critical thinking.

Anyone who’s ever played poker seriously will tell you that it is one of the most mentally challenging card games in existence. While games such as Gin Rummy can be played practically perfectly once a player masters the game, poker strategy is largely subjective and therefore requires creative and intelligent problem solving in order to be successful. Game objectives such as working out what your opponent holds or how to manipulate them into folding a superior hand are those cerebral gems that make poker the ultimate card game for exercising your brain.

Poker is also uniquely challenging in that it requires players to identify patterns in several ways. Observational skills are essential to playing poker, because you must be able to spot an opponent’s physical tells or betting patterns that might give away information about their holding. Very few other games require players to make quick decisions based on their opponents’ facial expressions and behavior, and deduce what their intentions may be from these clues.

Additionally, the game of poker often requires on-the-fly mathematics, memorization techniques (especially in Stud games in which some cards are dealt face up), and overall strategic thinking. Playing multiple games simultaneously in online poker games increases one’s ability to multitask, bringing a whole new level to this intellectually challenging game. On top of all these factors that activate the frontal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for attention and rational thinking), poker promotes patience, discipline and emotional control in an unparalleled way.

Known through history as “the game of kings,” chess is one of the oldest and well-known mental games on earth. While many people might view the game as nerdy or reserved for a genius level IQ, chess is actually a very accessible game and its benefits can be enjoyed by players of all skill levels. In fact, learning a new game such as chess has been proven to grow dendrites, which are the antenna-like branches that send signals throughout your brain neurons. The more dendrites you grow, and the bigger they become, the more likely it is that you’ll buck the trend of society’s plateauing IQ scores.

Like many cerebral enterprises, chess is a game of patience and planning, and teaches foresight that can be applied to daily lives – which makes it a perfect game for young people who are learning to navigate their way through society. It also promotes creativity and original thinking as there are constant adjustments that must be made while in the heat of a chess battle. Given that chess is used to help children understand logic and efficiency and also to preserve the cognitive functioning of the elderly, it’s no surprise that people have been uttering “checkmate” for over 1500 years.

It’s all Fun, But Not All Games

Playing mentally challenging games can go a long way towards maintaining and even increasing your cognitive abilities, but there are further measures that can be taken to meet your intellectual goals.

Nurture Your Body
Seeing as how the brain is part of the human party – and a pretty important part in fact – one shouldn’t ignore the fact that the overall body must be cared for in order for your gray matter to thrive. Studies have shown that large amounts of saturated fats such as butter and eggs can damage your memory, increase depression and lower motivation. Given the fact that these types of fats are so damaging to brain functionality, it’s unsurprising that some of the world’s most successful poker players swear by eating healthy in order to perform at their highest level.

Regular exercise is also essential to optimal brain functioning, as when a person sticks to a regular work-out routine, their cells receive large amounts of BDNF, a protein that aids in learning, understanding, concentration, memory and focus. And while it may sound obvious, most people in modern society are not getting enough uninterrupted high quality sleep, so make sure to catch your z’s if you want to live up to your full mental potential.

Learn Another Language
One of the most challenging and rewarding projects you can take on in terms of brain function is to learn a foreign language. Research has shown that bilingual individuals are better problem solvers and are able to perform mentally demanding tasks with greater ease than those who are limited to their native tongue. Learning a new language is the ultimate challenge in training your brain to think differently, and it can be incredibly rewarding from a social perspective.

In a world where it seems that everything worth reading has been turned into a TV show or movie franchise, it’s understandable that reading is no longer as popular as it once was. However, while one could argue that the rise in technology has discouraged the growth of literature-lovers, modern advances have also brought the written word to our fingertips via personal devices by way of blogs, news sources and even full-length downloadable books. So if you think you have an excuse to throw reading to the wayside, you’re absolutely wrong – and your brain is paying for it.

The fact is that reading, well, really anything is great for your mental agility. It doesn’t matter if you immerse yourself in a fantasy novel, a comic book or an online newspaper; the act of reading increases your intelligence and vocabulary, all while promoting problem solving, interpretation skills and emotionality.

Play a Musical Instrument
Similar to learning another language, playing a musical instrument challenges the brain to operate in a distinctly creative way. Whether you’re strumming a guitar or pressing valves on a trumpet, playing music creates new connections in the brain by strengthening the corpus callosum, which is responsible for linking the different sides of your brain together. Basically, when you’re jamming out on your instrument, your brain is being utilized to an amazing level of potential, which is extremely rare and essentially a full-body workout for your cranium.

And while learning how to play an instrument is more easily accomplished by children, the benefits of improved memory, problem solving and cerebral functionality can be enjoyed by aspiring musicians of all ages. Plus, showing off your musical skills is a major self-esteem boost to boot.

With so many ways to advance your intellect, there’s no reason why our society should be declining in terms of mental agility. And there’s no logical reason why we even need these new, hotly debated brain-training apps to aid our mental health. The truth is that the games and activities we require to be thoughtful, rational and overall intelligent people are right there in front of us, just as they have been all along.