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Looking after your mental health – how to give your brain a workout

 Article by Ian Gilbert

how to give your brain a workout

Use It Or Lose It

Your brain is like a muscle and we all know what happens to our bodies if we don’t work out and keep in shape! Recent research is suggesting that, while we might never be able to keep some of those nasty brain problems away as we get older, keeping ourselves in shape mentally won’t do any harm in giving ourselves a fighting chance to ensure our brains stay sharp as long as possible.

For every bit of research that tells us to practise Sudokus, do crosswords, watch Countdown, another group of boffins will tell you not to bother and that such activities have no discernible impact. To get to the bottom of this confusion, a recent review by the Global Council on Brain Health looked at all the studies out there and came up with as definitive a view as is currently possible on how to keep our brains as healthy as we can as we grow older.

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What the research concludes is that engaging in ‘brain games’ simply helps you be better at brain games without any wider benefits, regardless of the claims of the sales blurb. You want to be great at cryptic crosswords? Do lots of cryptic crosswords. You want to beat Rachel Riley on the numbers round? Keep practising that mental maths. Just don’t expect such pastimes to help you deal with a sudden crisis like a burst pipe or being given a new smart phone.


To better tap into what is called our ‘neural reserve’, the key is to keep ourselves mentally active throughout our lives and, as it’s never too late, to take up new activities that are stimulating, rich in content and challenge and, ideally, sociable.  The GCBH study suggests activities as diverse as creative writing, genealogy, taking up a new language or getting involved in community volunteering projects.


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So, for something in between the repetitive discipline of the morning’s crossword and selling the house and venturing off to save the rainforests, how about trying a Thunk instead?

A Thunk is a beguilingly simple question to which the answers is either yes, no, both, neither or something else. Unlike a crossword, Sudoku or Susie Dent, there are no set answers to a Thunk, there is only what you think. So, where a question with a set answer ultimately leads us down a neurological dead end, a Thunk keeps our brain going as we leap from one response to the next, especially if you are Thunking in a family or social group.


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What’s more, Thunks help us start to see the world in new ways, looking at many aspects of love, life and day-to-day living with new eyes, something that leads to the phrase people so often use when they’re Thunking – ‘My brain hurts!’ To understand why, we need to explore the extent to which the brain doesn’t like us to think.

In simple terms, learning is all about the billions of connections we forge between the millions of brain cells we have in our heads. As you learn new things, you make and then strengthen these new connections, creating what is called a ‘template’. This is a quick and easy way of thinking about the world that doesn’t involve much effort from the brain. They are our habits, both physical (try putting your other foot in your trousers first) and mental (complete this sentence, ‘The thing about the French is…’) and, while they are vital to our survival, living life on habitual autopilot is the opposite of what the research says we should be doing to build our mental reserve.


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By engaging in some good social Thunking – debating, discussing, analysing, reflecting, evaluating other people’s ideas, revaluating your own, persuading, laughing, getting angry, finding consensus or, harder still, agreeing to disagree – all of these mental gymnastics mean that your brain can’t simply stick to its tried and trusted ways. And if you find yourself saying, ‘Well, it just is!’ then you know you have reached the limit of your old templates and new ones are ready to be created if only you push on through and start thinking new thoughts.


To go back to the report mentioned earlier, while they conclude that we all need to ‘be realistic’ and understand that ‘there is no miracle to guarantee brain health’, they do acknowledge the importance of the adage, ‘Use it or lose it’. So, try a Thunk or two every day with your friends and family to give that brain the shake up it needs as we get older. After all, as the old sage once said, ‘Change your mind, prove you’ve got one!’.


Ian Gilbert is an educational innovator, founder of Independent Thinking Ltd, and author of The Compleat Thunks Book, published by Crown House Publishing, and available now on Amazon.








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