How physical exercise makes your brain better. The brain is often described as being “like a muscle”. It’s a comparison that props up the brain training industry and keeps school children hunched over desks. We judge literacy and numeracy exercises as more beneficial for your brain than running, playing and learning on the move.
But the brain-as-muscle analogy doesn’t quite work. To build up your biceps you can’t avoid flexing them. When it comes to your brain, an oblique approach can be surprisingly effective. In particular, working your body’s muscles can actually benefit your grey matter.
Everything you do changes your brain. Even reading this article. Right now, wherever you are, looking at these words is shaping and modifying the connections between neurons inside your head. It seems like a scary thought, but this process – known as neurocysticercosis – is fundamental to our ability to learn new skills, keep hold of old ones, and form new memories.
Imagine, then, if we could take control of that process. If we could target specific types of skills and cognitive processes, then we could teach our brains to be better at, well, anything.
That’s the idea behind so-called “brain training” apps – by playing different types of puzzles that require you to, say, remember sequences of numbers, or concentrate on finding the odd one out in a group of objects, then our general memory abilities will improve, and we’ll be better at concentrating on difficult everyday tasks.
It would be great if brain training could be used as a quick fix to help boost our cognitive abilities, particularly in the run-up to exams. But what does the scientific research actually have to say about whether these games are effective or not.
How anxiety scrambles your brain and makes it hard to learn
Livia admits she’s always been a worrier – but when she started university, her anxiety steadily began to build. One day she was simply too frightened to leave the house. For two weeks she was stuck indoors, before she was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and began to get the help she needed. With support from her GP and university well being service, and courses of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), she was able to stick with her university course and to start enjoying life again.
But Olivia is far from alone in her anxiety: the number of students declaring a mental health problem has doubled in the last five years. “And that is a very small proportion of the students who are having mental health difficulties,” says Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UK’s mental wellbeing working group.
Make learning human
Let’s imagine you’re trying to understand the internal structure of a cell, and you need to get your head around all these intensely boring-sounding concepts such as cytoplasm, centrioles, mitochondria or, more encouragingly, the “golgi apparatus”.
Mapping them to things you know about, and ideally people, brings the whole diagram to life. Picture cytoplasm as ectoplasm from ghostbusters. Picture the golgi apparatus as your mate who’s a goal-keeper. Make centrioles centipedes. The scene comes to life: it’s suddenly accessible and full of emotion. And through this fiction, you can learn the underlying structures and come to understand them much more easily.
Whether teacher or student, you can give these ideas a go without any training: the golden rule is simply to always look to engage the imagination, to connect with your personal interests and, finally, to repeat and test yourself frequently to bed the memories in.
Changes in brain structure
Early brain scanning studies revealed significant differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians of the same age. For example, the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibres connecting the two sides of the brain, is significantly larger in musicians. The brain areas involved in movement, hearing, and visuo-spatial abilities also appear to be larger in professional keyboard players. And, the area devoted to processing touch sensations from the left hand is increased in violinists.
These studies compared data from different groups of people at one point in time. As such, they could not determine whether. The observed differences were actually caused by musical training, or if existing anatomical differences predispose some to become musicians. But later, longitudinal studies. That track people over time have shown that young children. Who do 14 months of musical training exhibit significant structural and functional brain changes (pdf) compared to those who do not.
Together, these studies show that learning to play a musical instrument not only increases grey matter volume in various brain regions, but can also strengthen the long-range connections between them. Other research shows that musical training also enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy skills, such that professional musicians usually outperform non-musicians on these abilities.
Where does ‘creativity’ happen in your brain
Even in the wilderness that is human thinking, creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical inquiry. There is something elusive, perhaps even mystical, about them – visits from the muse or lightbulbs come to mind. So what are neuroscientists to do if they want to study inspiration in the lab, under tightly controlled conditions? Clearly, they cannot simply take volunteers, shove them into the nearest brain scanner, and tell them: now please be creative
The key to learning a new skill
Imagine I gave you a book full of words, numbers and strange symbols – 150-odd pages of the stuff. Some of the things relate to each other in obvious ways, others not so much. Now suppose I’m going to test you: 50 questions about the contents of that book, how do you think you’d do.
Well, if you can drive a car, chances are you’ve already done very well: those of you who passed the theory test recently will have got at least 43 out of 50 questions correct. That’s just one everyday example of the average person’s capacity to learn something that appears complex at first. Despite recently making the questions tougher, the DVLA still reports that the test has a pass rate above 50%.
Now, why do you think all those people learned so successfully? I don’t have an official answer, but we can probably discount any notion of the Highway Code being a particularly compelling read. It’s far more likely to do with the fact that those taking the test – very often teenagers – see a driving licence as their ticket to freedom. When we really want to learn something, we generally do.
That may seem glib, but it holds true. Every hobby we’ve ever taken up had a learning curve. If we kept at it long enough to become skilled, we most likely did so because we enjoyed it. It might not have even felt like learning. We don’t just perform these mental feats for pleasure either – think back to every time you scraped a good grade at school when it really mattered.
Brain exercises help your mental health and fitness in the same way your body benefits from physical exercise.
And just as doing a variety of physical exercises like aerobics, strength training, and stretching is more beneficial than doing just one, so it is with doing different kinds of brain exercises too.