By Lucy Barlow
Fun - Resolve to enjoy life. Play. Take up a hobby or renew an old one. Choosing an optimistic outlook helps lower stress. Stress causes toxins to develop in your body and damages neurons in your brain. Playing games, involvement in creative hobbies and participating in sports can help you to learn new skills and each new skill learned builds more brain connections. A hobby leads to a sense of accomplishment and often requires you to "think outside the box," thus developing problem solving skills. One of the best ways to improve cognitive functioning is to use more areas of the brain simultaneously.
When you are playing a game, painting, crafting, woodworking, playing sports, etc. think of all the areas of your brain you're using. Motor skills, language, imagination, memory, your 5 senses and more are all activated. Your brain is an organ which grows and learns new things by interacting with the world around you. The more opportunities you take to experience through perception and action the greater your cognitive functioning. Play is also important to cognitive development in young children. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master; free play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. In very young children there is a definite link between "pretending" in play and language skills. When play is allowed to be child driven-not parent or adult directed, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, and discover their own areas of interest. As they direct play and play with others their brains are constantly taking in new information and producing neurons to store that information.
Use it or Lose it - Recent research in neuroscience has shown that the brain remains remarkably flexible as we grow older-that is, it retains its ability to reorganize itself, to adapt to new tasks, and to build new neuro-pathways as demands are placed upon it. This means that older brains don't "wear out" and are fully as capable of meeting challenges and learning new information as younger brains are. When we are young, the brain is constantly being exposed to new and novel stimuli. We are constantly exposed to new sights, sounds, and experiences. We are exposed daily to new information and are required to build new skills. This forces our brains to constantly build new neural networks in order to deal with and integrate this new data. But, as we get older, the exposure to new stimuli lessens. Our physical world becomes "old hat" to us. We no longer get the constant stimulation from new information that we did in the classroom, etc. We settle into a routine and we begin to feel very comfortable with those routines. The end result is that our brains no longer receive the constant stimulation that they did when we were younger. We tend to gravitate toward activities that are more comfortable to do, not realizing that the brain needs the stimulation from more difficult activities if it is to stay active, challenged, and working at its best.
Find a way to stay mentally active. Don't read just one newspaper, read two or three. Think about what you read, how do you feel about it? Do research, evaluate the facts and form your own opinions. Think critically, make your brain work! Learn sign language, the younger the better but even older folks and seniors can benefit from learning a new language. Word searches, Sudoku and crossword puzzles are another great way to challenge your brain. A study published in Neurology magazine September 2009 reports that engaging in mentally challenging activities as little as twice a week can prevent cognitive decline and reduce your risk of dementia by as much as half. A warning though-to be truly beneficial to the brain, an activity must be novel and challenging. Finishing the "easy" crossword or Sudoku puzzle while watching T.V. probably isn't doing you much good. Turn off the T.V. and spend a day working an "expert" puzzle or try computer based brain exercises which provide more variety. An individual activity, no matter how novel, is not sufficient to sustain the kind of challenge most beneficial to your brain. For example, reading or doing crossword puzzles, though each is good on its own, provides little variety on a day-to-day basis. We now know that brain fitness depends on combining a variety of activities that differ in frequency, intensity and variety. We need to keep our brains "on their toes" with activities that are unexpected and require us to think.
De-Rut - Use your brain in new ways. Sometimes called "Neurobics" or brain exercises, these simple changes to your routine are a great way to build strong neuro connections. If you are right handed, try brushing your teeth or working the TV remote with your left hand. If you normally have the phone up to your left ear while you converse, try switching to the right ear. Write a sentence each day with your non-dominate hand, when walking or climbing stairs, try starting off each step with your non-dominate foot. Walk backwards! You are essentially doing things you normally do but doing them differently. While your brain is adjusting to performing these tasks, underused neuro-pathways and connections get activated. This stimulates the growth of new brain cells and brain connections. Try multi-sensory activities pairing senses in new ways. Shower or get dressed with your eyes closed, listen to music you wouldn't typically listen to-and write a letter (while you're listening) detailing what you like or don't like about it. Change your routine, drive home a different route, shop in a different grocery store, and rearrange your bedroom. To be considered a brain exercise, the task must be challenging, novel and include variety.
Lucy Gross-Barlow: As a Speech/Language Pathologist of over 26 years and having practiced in a wide variety of therapeutic settings, Lucy brings to her clients a diversity of patient care knowledge. For the past 12 years, she has specialized her practice in the area of processing disorders and remediation of learning impairments, and she has a passion in seeing her clients succeed in their communicative and learning skills. Lucy now desires to extend the knowledge she has gained in processing and learning remediation to as many children as possible to enable them to reach their full learning and communicative potential in life.
Lucy is a founding partner of The Therapy Group, an association of Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, learning specialists, Speech-Language Pathology Aides, parent teachers, administrators and advocates pioneering an industry in web-based consulting for parents who seek to help their children with learning challenges or those learning with disabilities in achieving academic and social success. Providing parents with resources, learning therapies, proprietary products and programs worldwide.
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