Keep your brain ticking

Senior Consultant Neurologist Dr. J.B. Peiris suggests some simple ways to keep your mental faculties healthy

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me how best to remember names. Having faced the problem myself (possibly, a familial trait) I could not think of a suitable answer immediately. So, I did some thinking, reading and surfing and here are some interesting facts, myths and food for thought.

By the time you are 65 years, your brain isn't what it used to be- you will start to notice the signs: you forget people's names and you cannot remember where you left your keys or mobile phone. Clearly not everyone ages in the same way

Reaction time is slower and it takes us longer to learn new information. Sometimes it takes longer to retrieve information, resulting in that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon — where you almost have that word or that thought. That's typical of the middle-age brain.

There is a good reason why our memories start to let us down. At this stage of life we are steadily losing brain cells in critical areas such as the hippocampus - the area where memories are processed. This is not too much of a problem at first; even in old age the brain is flexible enough to compensate. At some point though, losses start to make themselves felt. It's true that by midlife our brains can show some fraying. Brain processing speed slows down. Faced with new information, we often cannot master it as quickly as our younger peers. And there's little question that our short-term memories suffer.

There are, however, some brain functions which improve with age. We actually grow smarter in key areas in middle age which, with longer life spans, now stretches from our mid 40s to our mid to late 60s. In areas as diverse as vocabulary and inductive reasoning, our brains function better than they did in our 20s. As we age, we more easily get the "gist" of arguments. Even our judgment of others improves. Often, we simply "know'' if someone — or some idea — is to be trusted. We also get better at knowing what to ignore and when to hold our tongues.

Fresh thinking about the brain

An old myth in neuroscience is that once a brain cell dies off you can't replace it. But many studies have now shown, that there is, in fact, brain cell growth throughout life. It continues to develop, and even continues to grow new brain cells. So the brain can continue to learn throughout the middle age years and beyond.

Plasticity of the brain

The brain can be changed or moulded to suit the needs – the concept of "Plasticity" which relates to changes by adding or removing connections, or adding cells. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning.

In a recent study referred to as "your brain on Google," healthy, middle-aged volunteers, all novices on the computer, were taught how to do a Google search. They were told then to practise doing online searches for an hour a day, for seven days. After the week's practice, the volunteers came back into the lab and had their brains scanned while doing a Google search. The scans revealed significant increases in brain activity in the areas that control memory and decision-making.

The area of the brain that showed the increases was the frontal lobe, the thinking brain, especially in areas that control decision making and working memory. With practice, a middle-age brain can very quickly alter its neuron-circuitry; can strengthen the neuron circuits that control short-term memory and decision making.

It is also known that other areas of the brain also increase in size with usage. For example, the finger area in the motor cortex in Braille readers and professional string instrument players is more extensive than in a normal individual.

The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as Neuro-plasticity.

Remembering names and numbers

Let me now try to answer the question I posed at the beginning – how to remember names and numbers.

Repeat it 7 seconds later

Train your mind frequently by repeating to yourself anything you need to remember as quickly as you learn it. This is very useful especially when remembering phone numbers and dates. Repetition is a simple system on how to improve memory power, but it works even for long term memory. Recall it after 7 seconds to store it in memory.

Write it down

Let the paper remember for you. The point is to have use of the information later, and if that's more easily done by way of an "external memory device" like pen and paper, why not take advantage of these tools? Also, writing things down is another way to more strongly "fix" something in our minds.

Imagine the future use

If you think about how you will use information, you're more likely to remember it. For example if after learning a new algorithm in a math class you imagine using it during a test, you'll probably remember it better - particularly when taking a test.

How to improve ‘brain fitness’

Consider the brain a muscle. Variety and curiosity is the basis. When anything you do becomes second nature, you need to make a change. If you can do the crossword puzzle in your sleep, it's time for you to move on to a new challenge in order to get the best workout for your brain.

Brain aerobics

What exactly constitutes a brain aerobic exercise? To qualify as a brain aerobic exercise, the activity

  • Needs to engage your attention
  • Must involve two or more of your senses
  • Must break a routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way

Play games

Sudoku, crosswords playing chess or bridge, dancing regularly and electronic games can all improve your brain's speed and memory. These games rely on logic, word skills, math and more. These games are also fun. You'll get benefit more by doing these games a little bit every day -- spend 15 minutes or so, not hours.


Daily meditation is perhaps the single greatest thing you can do for your mind/body health. Meditation not only relaxes you, it gives your brain a workout. By creating a different mental state, you engage your brain in new and interesting ways while increasing your brain fitness.

Turn off your television

Television can stand in the way of relationships, life and more. Turn off your TV and spend more time living and exercising your mind and body.

Exercise your body to exercise your brain

Physical exercise is great brain exercise too. By moving your body, your brain has to learn new muscle skills, estimate distance and practise balance. Choose a variety of exercises to challenge your brain.

Read something different

Branch out from familiar reading topics. If you usually read history books, try a contemporary novel. Read foreign authors, the classics and random books.

Learn a new skill

Learning a new skill works multiple areas of the brain. Your memory comes into play, you learn new movements and you associate things differently. Learning a new language or becoming computer literate is equally good. Reading Shakespeare, learning to cook and building an airplane out of toothpicks all will challenge your brain and give you something to think about.

Make simple changes

We love our routines. We have hobbies and pastimes that we could do for hours on end. To really help your brain stay young, challenge it. Change routes to your destinations, use your opposite hand to open doors, and eat dessert, shave, and brush teeth, texting, using the computer mouse. Writing with the other hand is a useful way of using the non dominant hemisphere to do a component associated with speech – usually located in the dominant hemisphere.

The brain is an organ like no other. You can ‘exercise’ it in many different ways and this is the best way to make the best use of it. Use it or lose it, is true of the brain; importantly you can use it in many different ways.

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