At this time of year, many people’s thoughts turn to physical exercise to gain a ‘beach body’ ready for their summer holiday. But, mental exercise is just as important.
So, what is the best way to:
- Hone your mind;
- Improve your thinking skills; and
- Help stave off cognitive decline as you age?
Puzzles and brain-teasers, such as crosswords and sudoku, are a popular but somewhat lacking choice – generally because they are not very varied. For example, imagine going to the gym and only performing bicep curls – your biceps might become strong, but you will not be ‘properly fit’. To get a bigger bang for your buck, you need something more like circuit training or parkour (types of training that target all the muscles of the body, rather than just one).
One of the best options for mental exercise is to tackle a foreign language, as this will provide a mental workout comprising many different skills, from perception to the suppression of your native tongue to learning grammatical rules, which can be almost mathematical. If you speak to others, you also get the bonus of social interaction too.
Learning a new language may be hard work, but the payoff is impressive. Research suggests it can improve your mental focus. For example, following an intensive, week-long Gaelic course, people were better at paying attention and suppressing irrelevant information. The effect gradually wore off, however, if they did not stick with their language practice.
Other studies indicate that people who are bilingual have improved executive function – the ability to plan, organise and complete tasks – although these results have recently been disputed. There is also evidence that they develop dementia four years later, on average, than people who are monolingual – and that they recover faster if they have had a stroke.
If languages really are not your thing, you might consider taking up a musical instrument or joining a choir, instead. Music training utilises many of the same skills as learning a language, and has been associated with improved memory, attention and empathy. It may even improve your ability to acquire new languages.
If, like me, you are not very good with languages or musical instruments, feel free to join me on the bicep curls station in the gym!