Cognitive exercise that makes sense


I get asked a lot about people’s favorite things to do to exercise their brain. At the top of the lists are typically Sudoku and crossword puzzles. The people asking me are usually people who are already good at math and verbal expression. So I often respond with an old joke.

A man is looking feverishly for his keys under a streetlamp. His friend sees him there, and joins him in the search. After a few hours, the friend says, “ I just can’t find the keys. Are you sure you lost them here?” The man responds, “Oh no, I lost them about a half mile down the road, but the light is so much better here.” 

All the love for Sudoku and crossword puzzles is a similar case of looking for your keys where the light is best. It’s easier and fun to do what comes naturally, but you’re not likely to achieve your goals of brain fitness by these methods. 

The goal of brain exercise is to generate new and stronger pathways in your brain. If your brain is already well developed and skilled with words and numbers, it’s probably a lot of fun to do crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, but it’s probably not doing a lot to strengthen or generate new cognitive pathways.

So my challenge to you is to begin looking for your brain health in places where the lighting isn’t best, but where you’re most likely to find it. Think about what skill areas you have historically avoided. Some areas you might want to consider are: visual memory, verbal memory, visuospatial skills, processing speed, attention, artistic skill, physical abilities, mathematics, and verbal skills. Rank them from most commonly used to least commonly used, or from easiest to most difficult. If you’re having trouble, ask your significant other or a good friend. Then focus on developing your most challenging/least utilized skill areas.

Are you a slow and steady type who refuses to be rushed? Play timed games, like Perfection or Bop It!. Are you unable to draw a stick figure? Take the art class of your choice. Have you never been an athlete? Take a yoga class. Learn to square dance. Play soccer with your children, grandchildren, or coworkers. If your visual memory is poor like mine, play Memory (aka Concentration) with your favorite child friend. Are you a wordsmith who can’t do much with your hands? Play Tangrams, or Legos, or Tinker Toys. Or play with one of my favorite new toys, Super Plexus. And if verbal skills are not your strength, try Boggle or Scrabble, or even Scramble or WordTwist, right here on Facebook. 

You want to pick things that are a challenge, but also which are fun. If they’re not fun, you’re not likely to continue them. Find a buddy to join you in the merriment. Play children’s games with the kids in your life. Have a game night once a week at your house. Be open to doing things that aren’t in your natural skill set, and you might surprise yourself by the things you enjoy. I’d love to hear about what you’ve tried and how it goes for you.

And Sudoku and Crossword puzzles? You can keep doing them. It’s important and healthy to do things that are fun for you. Just don’t expect to find your keys there.