What Is Brain Training, and Can it Help My Memory?

Forgot a password you use every day? Lose your ID … again? Brain fails are normal. Cognitive training exercises can help.

By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano


Why you feel like you're losing your mind

Your keys aren’t lost. It’s just that you can’t find them. Or your phone. Or your grocery list. Nor can you remember why you just walked into the kitchen, the name of that actress who was in that movie about the thing, or the punchline to a joke you’ve told a thousand times.

The (absolutely non-) scientific term for all of this is “brain fail” — the sensation of knowing that you know something, but being unable to retrieve the information or just fetching it more slowly than usual. While it happens to everyone from time to time, you’ll notice an uptick in middle age. (The volume of gray matter in the part of the brain that’s responsible for complex mental work begins to decrease around age 20.) But this variety of brain fail is exceedingly common, as opposed to a condition that causes dementia, like Alzheimer’s.

Still, the things you can do to help prevent Alzheimer’s will help with brain fail. There are big-picture factors involved, like getting enough sleep and physical exercise. But there’s more to it than just clean living. Specifically, you need to put your brain on a training regimen.

What Is Brain Training?

Brain training is basically exercise for your mind. Just like your muscles function way better if you flex them regularly, your brain needs a good workout to be at its best. The best brain training involves skills that go into mental sharpness, working memory, processing speed, focus, and the like. In short, cognitive training exercises amount to learning.

“When we’re kids, we’re learning something new every day,” says Susanne Jaeggi, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Working Memory and Plasticity Lab at the University of California, Irvine, who is investigating cognitive training exercises. “We learn how to speak, how to write, how to do math. Once we’re adults, at some point we stop being engaged in constant learning. But it’s use it or lose it and, just as with physical exercise, challenging your mind is the best way to ensure it stays vital. 

Brain Training vs. Brain Games: What’s the Difference?

Brain trainingis often done through brain games, but you don’t need an app or a puzzle to accomplish the same goal. Brain games usually take the form of programs designed to stave off cognitive decline (such as apps like Lumosity and CogniFit). While brain games have been shown to improve certain skills, the scientific community is split on whether these games transfer into helping people remember where the hell they put their keys. 

What researchers do know is that we can protect against brain fail, without an app. It’s as simple as regularly challenging your brain by giving it a workout. In other words, cognitive training exercises don’t need to be formal. In fact, you might already be doing them. 

Researchers have found that when older people are exposed to the idea that aging is a one-way street to mental mush, they do worse on memory tests. Screw that!

Put Together Your Best Brain Training Program

The short version: Take on a challenge, all the better with a friend. Here are three tips to help you design a brain training program you’ll stick with:

Cognitive Training Tip #1: Learn Something New Researchers have found that the best “cognitive leisure activities” (i.e. fun stuff that helps to offset brain fail) include intellectual stimulation, new skills, and communication. These cognitive training exercises form new neural pathways, and it’s those pathways that keep people sharp as they age. If your brain isn’t doing anything new, information moves along the same old routes instead of building new ones.

Cognitive Training Tip #2: Make Time to Socialize Stretching your brain solo is good, but adding friends is better. In addition to all the other benefits of hanging out with friends, socializing brings a specific advantage to cognitive training exercises. Unless you want to be the a-hole who exhibits zero curiosity about other people, social activity flexes attention and memory. Plus, if you’re, say, auditing a college course or joining a book club, you’ll learn something by listening to the thoughts and opinions of other, upping the intellectual stimulation all the more.

Cognitive Training Tip #3: Involve As Many Human Senses As Possible A study from the UK showed that people were likelier to remember images when those images were paired with a scent. The idea here is that the more sensory associations you have when experiencing something, the more your brain has to work with when encoding memories. When you’re actively brain training, or are simply working on something that you really want to remember, bring in a particular scent or playlist, and use it as a memory prompt for that task. 

Brain Exercises to Consider in Your Training Program

The best cognitive training exercisesare the ones you’ll actually do — so pick something you’ll genuinely enjoy. And whatever you do for brain training, you need to — apologies for the cheese factor—believe in yourself. There’s a sociological conundrum called “stereotype threat,” which boils down to people in a stereotyped group believing the things the world at large thinks about them. Researchers have found that when older people are exposed to the idea that aging is a one-way street to mental mush, they do worse on memory tests. Screw that! And try one of these cognitive training exercises instead:

  • Pick up a book. If you’re already an avid reader, up the ante. For every thriller you inhale, choose one of the classics or a book in a genre you don’t normally read.
  • Pick up a pen. Lifelong journaler? Great. Now try using your personal screeds to go after one of these 500 writing prompts
  • Get crafty. Doing a craft or hobby you’ve perfected may help with stress, but to turn it into brain training, go deeper. Challenge yourself to master a related (or unrelated) pastime. Enjoy photography? Learn Photoshop and stop relying on pre-set filters. Like playing mixologist at parties? Give beer brewing a try. You get the point.
  • Find your inner musician. If you already play an instrument, collaborate with another musician, or give each other lessons on a new-to-you instrument. “Learning an instrument is complex,” Dr. Jaeggi says. “It’s not just learning how to read notes—it’s motor functions, it’s keeping track of what’s going on while you’re playing, it’s playing with others.” That kind of comprehensive brain trainingis what you’re after.
  • Become your own IT department. Dr. Jaeggi’s research suggests that along with making music, using a computer may be one of the more valuable activities for brain training. You don’t have to become a master programmer or anything—just using your computer and staying up to date with the technologies it offers can help.
  • Get schooled.A one-time seminar might be interesting, but research published in The Journals of Gerontology found that when older adults took three to five classes for around 15 hours a week—similar to a college structure—their short-term memory and ability to task-switch improved.

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