Brain exercises for memory
For years we have seen articles that promote physical exercise for optimal brain health. But what about brain exercises for memory improvement? In addition to a healthy diet, exercise, sleep habits, and lifestyle, we are encouraged to purposefully exercise our brains. How do we do this? By involving ourselves in anything that makes you think and provides some kind of cognitive challenge. These come in many forms, such as mazes, word puzzles, word searches, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and on and on. But to what effect do these games really have? Let us delve a little deeper.
The brain and memory
The human brain is an incredible organ. It is a complex system where there are roughly 86 billion neurons. Consequently, cell counting in the human brain is very complex. For over 150 years scientists have been trying to determine how to quantify neurons and glial cells and quite frankly, any more discussion of this topic is well above my pay grade! A great website to learn all about brain functioning is Neurosciencenews.com. They have fantastic scholarly articles on all things brain. Therefore, let us bring this down a notch and instead discuss the various parts of memory.
How does memory work?
There are 3 stages that must work together for memory to exist. These include encoding, storage, and recall. Encoding is what you do to begin the memory process. Sometimes it is purposeful, other times it can be automatic. Once you start the encoding process, the brain begins its work on the storage process.
I am a visual learner, so I view the brain as an onion. The greater the effort you purposefully take to encode something you want to retain, the deeper the layer of storage you are placing these thoughts. The transition from encoding into storage is where you need to spend the most time and effort. For example, If you meet someone for the first time and they say their name only once, it is most likely you will not remember that name. Unless you immediately repeat it and begin encoding by association or other meaningful acts. Finally, the 3rd stage of memory is the actual retrieval process. Most people spend more time trying to remember something than they do encoding it in the first place.
Types of memory
Did you know there are actually 7 different memory types? They include sensory, short-term (working memory), long-term memory, explicit and implicit, declarative and procedural, episodic and semantic, and retrospective and prospective.
Sensory memory includes vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. This memory type is not something you can practice strengthening, this is an automatic function of memory and it lasts for only seconds. For example, have you ever walked past someone wearing a certain cologne and you immediately started thinking of someone else you used to know? At that time of your life when you were near the person who wore that certain cologne, you did not tell your brain to smell it repeatedly until you thought you stored it deep enough for later recall.
Short-term memory includes the various processes of working memory. Understand that short-term and working memory are not actually interchangeable terms. Short-term memory skills allow you to read the sentences in this article. Your brain is holding onto the new information just long enough for you to do something with it. Such as to think about something deeper, make a note of something, or repeat something with the intent to store it. If you do not take a purposeful step of doing something with this new information, it will be lost.
On a basic level, long-term memory includes 2 tracks. One track includes explicit memories – things we remember with conscious efforts. Included in this track are episodic memories – your life events, and semantic memories – retaining factual information.
The second track includes implicit memories – your body’s movement with things. Implicit memories include procedural memory which is an automatic process, such as riding a bike. Associative memory is retaining information based on the association encoding process. You may remember your neighbor’s name as it is the same name as your brother.
Non-associative memory is retained only with the purposeful and conscious efforts of repeated exposure, whether you use verbal repetition, start doing something at the same time every day, etc. Finally, there is priming, which is when a prior memory or stimuli influences your response when presented to it again. Confusing, isn’t it?
How to keep a healthy brain
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 7 primary steps to maintaining a healthy brain. These include stopping smoking, manage your blood pressure, be physically active, maintain a healthy weight, have healthy sleep patterns, be socially engaged, and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. You can go to any medical website, and they will have the same steps to varying degrees.
As humans, we like to compartmentalize our physical issues without acknowledging we are a whole being. We especially do this with our brain. We may think we are having problems with memory when the reality is we might have low blood sugar preventing us from adequately starting the memory stages for later retention. Or perhaps we are having an especially bad memory day but did not associate the problem with only sleeping 3 hours the night before. It all boils down to what comes next.
What is the answer?
We have talked about the stages of memory and how memory works. But did you know before the first stage of memory can even begin the job of encoding, there is a pre-cursor stage? Think about it, how can you encode something if you are first not able to attend to it? That is right, we are talking about attention and concentration. And this is where brain exercises for memory come into play.
Attention? Look, squirrel!
Attention is the ability to attend to something long enough to absorb the details, the information. It requires the ability to block the environmental distractions so you can focus on what you need to focus on. Concentration is the ability to sustain your attention skills for a certain amount of time, whether it is for several seconds or hours. If you have poor attention skills, your encoding skills will lack. What does this mean? Poor attention = poor encoding = poor storage = poor retrieval. In other words, you can’t remember!
Brain exercises and attention
The best exercises for brain health include the above 7 recommendations. But what about strengthening our attention and concentration skills? It sounds as though attention skills are the core of memory, doesn’t it? If attention plays such a huge role in the beginning stages of memory formation, shouldn’t we target attention and concentration exercises specifically?
Enter cognitive challenging language and spatial-based gaming. Spatial exercise targets the right side of the brain while language-based targets mostly the left hemisphere. Scientists now know memory is stored in various areas within the brain, so we need to stimulate all areas with purpose.
The Different Types of Brain Exercise for memory
It is important to identify which brain games you enjoy the most. It only makes sense that if you enjoy it, you will develop a good habit of daily practice. Language brain exercises include reading books or articles, word search puzzles, crossword puzzles, fill in the blanks, unscrambling words, and writing.
Spatial brain exercises include working on maps, mazes, spot the difference, matching games, working math problems, and hidden object games. These lists are not all-inclusive of course. Don’t stop reading now, we are almost there!
Will brain exercises improve my memory?
Maybe? Here’s the deal. We must look at the brain in a holistic manner. You cannot separate the brain from your body. If you have high blood pressure, that will affect your brain. If you do not get consistent adequate sleep, that will negatively affect your brain. First and foremost, you must work on total brain health in accordance with the CDC recommendations.
Do you want to strengthen your attention skills in a fun way? Then yes, working on any of the above brain stimulation exercises will positively produce purposeful thinking, attention, and concentration in the moments of working on the games. Will this translate to a better memory? That is a loaded question. I have not yet read a scientifically published article supporting this fact alone. It is always coupled with physical exercise with proper diet and the other above recommendations.
So brain exercises for memory DO work?
It’s complicated. The brain-the mind-is a powerful thing. As a speech-language pathologist, I work with patients every day who report subjective memory concerns. Why do I say subjective? There doesn’t seem to be any actual neurological reason for their deficits. This is when we introduce recall strategies and brain exercises for memory. I have worked with patients who came to me with concerns about memory problems.
One of my recent patients started a daily regimen of word search puzzles and mazes. He went from working on one a day to up to 5 per day. In addition, he told me he felt like his memory was getting better. He stated he knows what it feels like to concentrate now, something that he lost during his retirement. He now applies that to other areas of his life as well. So yes, he learned how to improve his gaming skills, but what he really learned was what it feels like to attend to something with cognitive effort.
Does this mean everyone will have the same results? I hope so, but it is not always the case. What is the bottom line? It is better to do something than do nothing at all. If you get nothing else out of working on specific brain exercises for memory except for 30 minutes of enjoyment, then you felt enjoyment for 30 minutes of your day. Is that such a bad thing?
What I can offer you
We now have an understanding that specific brain exercises can have a positive effect on your attention and concentration skills which is the core of memory formation. Now we need to get you working! I have developed 2 types of maze puzzle books. One is entitled Easy to Moderate Mazes for Neuro Recovery – an exercise in attention and concentration – phase I. I developed this one specifically for people who have experienced some sort of brain insult and need to start at a slower pace.
My 2nd maze book is entitled Master the Maze – A healthy alternative to road rage and spree killing. This book would most likely be best for the average person as the medium-level mazes make you think and the levels increase in complexity for those who really love a good challenge. Both books are large, easy to see, and priced to sell!
I am currently in the development of a large word search puzzle book which is phase II of my exercise book in attention and concentration. Please come back soon so you don’t miss out on this opportunity as well!
What have we learned today?
By improving the health of the brain and strengthening our attention and concentration processes, we can enhance the stages of memory formation for more promising retrieval events. In other words, a healthy lifestyle and purposeful brain stimulation equal stronger memory-forming opportunities.
Don’t miss out!
Remember to go to Amazon and purchase at least one of my maze puzzle books entitled Easy to Moderate Mazes for Neuro Recovery – an exercise in attention and concentration – phase I or Master the Maze – A healthy alternative to road rage and spree killing. Share these links with others you think might enjoy them as well! See you next time!
Please leave a comment below about what you do to exercise your brain!
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- Lauralee Sherwood (1 January 2015). Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems. Cengage Learning. pp. 157–162. ISBN 978-1-305-44551-2.
- Eysenck, Michael (2012). Attention and Arousal : Cognition and Performance. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. ISBN 978-3-642-68390-9. OCLC 858929786.
- Schacter, Daniel L.; Addis, Donna Rose; Buckner, Randy L. (2007). “Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Springer Nature. 8 (9): 657–661. doi:10.1038/nrn2213. ISSN 1471-003X. PMID 17700624
- LaBar K.S.; Cabeza R. (2006). “Cognitive neuroscience of emotional memory”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 7 (1): 54–64. doi:10.1038/nrn1825. PMID 16371950