Mental Stimulation: Everything You Need to Know About Brain Health

| Podcast, Thinking

mental stimulation feature imageDid you know that you can use mental stimulation to cause new brain cells to grow and connect?

It’s true. The process is called neurogenesis and anyone can do it.

But you might lack confidence when it comes to understanding and using the techniques.

And I can’t blame you. Tinkering with your brain can feel scary.

But rest assured. I do it all the time, as do millions of others around the planet.

It’s safe, healthy and really does boost your brain.

So if you’re ready for a simple explanation of the science and a list of fun steps to follow, let’s get started.

What is Mental Stimulation?

Think about the difference between your brain and your mind.

You’ve probably seen documentaries where surgeons use electrodes to stimulate parts of the brain. Sometimes touching a part of the brain causes the patient’s limbs to move. Other times, they might think they are smelling toast.

This is the difference between stimulating the brain’s connection to the body and its connection to mental imagery. Whereas brain stimulation that causes muscle movement is physical, stimulation that triggers a mental experience is mental stimulation.

Do the two types of stimulation ever combine?

In a word, yes.

One of the scientific terms for the physical aspect of brain stimulation is called “neuromodulation.” As Clement Hamani and his co-authors show in Neuromodulation in Psychiatry, manipulating physical brain structures has a long, and sometimes troubling history.

For example, gamma knife radiation, normally used to treat lesions and tumors, has been used experimentally to treat obsessive compulsive disorder. Some positive results have been seen in how such patients think and behave. But there have also been some not so positive outcomes as well.

gamma knife radiation

However, this is not what we usually mean by mental stimulation. Usually what we mean are topics like the ones categorized by John Clement in Creative Model Construction in Scientists and Students: The Role of Imagery, Analogy, and Mental Simulation:

  • Using your imagination to mentally simulate experiences like using image streaming
  • Conducting thought experiments
  • Using analogies
  • Thinking philosophically
  • Reasoning through problems objectively and subjectively
  • Spatial reasoning
  • Playing a musical instrument

The Impact of Mental Stimulation

The benefits of such activities can increase creativity, memory, productivity, consistency, decision-making and goal completion.

Mental activity is key in each of these areas. As the co-authors of The Wise Advocate show, thinking in particular ways helps improve brain structures. It also helps new neural pathways form, helping people lead themselves and others much better.

Plus, you’ll also feel sharper when you stimulate the brain. The question is, what kinds of activities do this effectively and efficiently?

Let’s have a look at some of the best.

brain stimulation

Mental Activities That Can Stimulate Your Brain

As we dive into this list, please beware of other lists that talk about improving your blood sugar, cholesterol or other aspects of physical health. While all of those things are good in themselves, to get the benefits of brain stimulation, we need to engage in mental exercises.

Authentic mental activities will stretch you. If they don’t, they’re probably not stimulating enough.

To make sure you’re getting proper levels of challenge, make sure that the activities you choose to get mentally stimulated involve:

  • Learning or relearning
  • Reasonable complexity
  • Variation
  • Frequent engagement

If you’re missing any of these criteria, make sure to include them in for a good brain workout.

One: Learn a Language

One of the most proven ways to increase what is called “cognitive reserve” is to study a foreign language.

What is cognitive reserve?

It is robust brain health that people free from Alzheimer’s and Dementia show in old age. It’s well-known that keeping your brain active throughout life, but especially in old age helps increase this aspect of mental fitness.

Some studies I’ve discussed in my post on bilingualism show that learning just one language can provide up to 32 years of cognitive reserve.

Luckily, learning a new language provides a range of challenges, and is also really fun.

Two: Study Music

Music provides a similar level of challenge as language learning. There are at least as many ins-and-ands you’ll stretch your brain to accommodate.

Whether it’s learning the key signatures or the names of the notes for each string on a guitar, your brain will benefit.

a woman is playing with guitar strings

Keep in mind that you don’t have to learn an instrument. Studies have shown that even just regular singing stimulates the brain so much, people who do it recover better from surgeries than those who don’t.

Plus, you can also stimulate your brain by learning about the history of different musical styles, along with the biographies of great composers and musicians.

Three: Long Form Reading

Many people graze in their reading. They dip in and out of things.

But long form reading stimulates your brain much more profoundly when you read:

  • Multiple books on the same topic
  • A variety of books by the same author so your mind can build a paracosm
  • Several books that compare and contrast topics to expand your perspective

There are many other reading strategies, but the three listed above are some of my favorites.

Four: Neurobics

If aerobic exercise gets your lungs and heart to change their normal resting pattern, neurobics changes the normal patterns of your brain.

A simple example is changing your route to and from work. It can even be just a simple detour down a street you’ve never explored that awakens your brain.

a beautiful street

Or, you can:

  • Brush your teeth using your non-dominant hand
  • Unlock your door with your eyes closed
  • Learn to recite the alphabet backwards

Five: Brain Exercise

Brain exercise is controversial. Tons of companies have created apps that claim they will help keep your brain sharp.

However, as I discussed with Dr. Christine Till, there’s little to no evidence that they have any effect.

That said, there are a number of mentally stimulating brain exercises you can engage in that will stretch your figural memory. For example, you can imagine taking different letters of the alphabet apart and reorganizing them in unique ways.

Six: Puzzles and Games

Solving puzzles is very stimulating.

But I don’t mean crossword puzzles, where the temptation to cheat is strong.

I’m talking about physical puzzles that require you to complete a picture. For the strongest possible challenge, choose densely colored abstract images to work on.

When it comes to games, check out my list of the best adult brain games.

women are playing puzzels

Seven: Memory-Based Meditation

Many types of meditation are fantastic. But the most stimulating tend to involve chanting and mudras.

To get started, I suggest learning Kirtan Kriya. It’s good for reducing stress while improving concentration and memory.

For greater levels of challenge, memorize chants like the kind I discuss in my book, The Victorious Mind.

If you need help memorizing long chants, it’s also great mental stimulation to use a Memory Palace. You can ultimately tie this form of meditation back to language learning, such as by memorizing a book of chants in another language.

Eight: Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills

In a world filled with so much gullibility and strife, it’s easy to stand out just by being a reasonable person.

But how do you get started if you’re currently struggling with falling for bad ideas and disinformation?

Here’s a simple exercise that Lisa Mendelman rightly argues sounds simplistic, but is incredibly effective.

As you read, circle the concepts and the images authors use to try and persuade you. For example, in this section, you might circle the word “strife.”

a woman is writing on a pink book

This in itself will help you think more critically. But to take it to the next level, start questioning while reading. Ask questions like:

  • According to whom?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • Who benefits if this claim is true?

This kind of real-time reflective thinking is incredibly stimulating – and beneficial.

Can You Really Boost Your Brain?

As we’ve seen, this is not really the right question. What we need to do is stimulate our minds.

Or course, there’s a time and a place for stimulating the physical brain, ideally with physical exercise.

But when it comes to stimulating the mind so that it really does get a boost, we need to challenge it.

I’ve shared a bunch of powerful activities on this page, and you can rest assured that your intelligence is not fixed. You even stand to improve your IQ if you set goals around learning and complete them.

For some people, the real challenge is going to be taking on the challenge in the first place.

And no doubt. Modern life is hectic. Many of us are tired. Digital amnesia has frazzled our brain and Johan Hari has gone deep into how and why this has happened in his book Stolen Focus.

But if you’re stuck, there are always options.

One of those options is memory training. It is perhaps the most stimulating option of them all because it works out multiple levels of your memory.

Get my FREE MEMORY IMPROVEMENT KIT now if you’re interested:

Free Memory Improvement Course

The mental stimulation you’ll receive in this course includes stimulation of your:

All you have to do is dive in and get started.

It truly is up to you. All you have to do is take that first step.

So what do you say?

Are you ready for some authentic mental stimulation? Stimulate yourself now by saying yes and I can’t wait to read your progress reports.

In case it hasn’t already leapt to your mind, engaging in correspondence is yet another powerful way to invite more mental stimulation into your life. All the more so when you’re taking on the challenge of expressing your experiences of taking on more challenges.

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