In the last post we discussed the importance of exercising the mind in order to improve brain power. As powerful as active mental stimulation like crossword puzzles or brain training programs like Lumosity can be for increasing concentration and memory, it turns out that really challenging your mind with learning and accomplishing unfamiliar tasks can be significantly more effective.
Think about it. Have you ever had a leaky faucet, a mechanical issue with your car or any other problem that needed fixing, and you chose to take it upon yourself to tackle the task? Well assuming you got the problem fixed and didn’t flood your house or blow up your car and end up infinitely times more frustrated than you were before noticing the problem in the first place, I’m willing to bet you ended up with a feeling of accomplishment and the confidence to handle some other unfamiliar task, should it arise. And not only that, but after facing this challenging task and accomplishing it, I bet your day to day tasks suddenly seemed less overwhelming. You may have even looked forward to some of them!
Basically, what you did was rev up your mental engine and in response your general focus and concentration have improved.
And now for some science…
The ability of unfamiliar challenges to affect cognitive function was recently explored in a study conducted at The University of Texas. The study took 221 people ranging from age 60 to 90, and put them 3 specific groups. Each group was to perform a certain type of activity 15 hours a week for 3 months.
–Group 1 was tasked with learning how to quilt and/or learning digital photography. These were foreign skills to the participants.
–Group 2 was given more familiar tasks, and directed to perform crossword puzzles or listen to classical music (a more passive mental stimulation) at home.
–Group 3 (apparently the fun group) was directed to attend social events, field trips, and engage in “other” types of entertainment.
Findings showed that those in group 1 (foreign skill/unfamiliar activity group) saw the most cognitive improvement.
To quote Lead Researcher in the U-Texas study, Denise Parker, “When you are inside of your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”
It’s no wonder that the more challenging tasks one accomplishes the easier others become. Whether you want to know the exact physiological reason for this or to chalk it up to mental momentum, it works! And Parker speculates that this type of mental engagement should have long term benefits on cognition as well. Although unproven at this time the research team plans to follow up with the subjects at the 1 and 5 year marks to assess their mental progress and hopefully confirm the speculation.
So make sure to incorporate the proper diet and lifestyle to reinforce your foundation for mental health and get out there and challenge your mind with unfamiliarity!