Understanding how to better exercise your brain

We all know that we should exercise more to stay fit and maintain muscle mass, but when it comes to exercising our brains we ironically are somewhat stupid about what this means. For this column, I want to describe my own personal journey towards maintaining my brain’s health. It is still ongoing, and still a struggle.

For close to two decades, I have been bothered by a variable ringing in my ears, what the doctors call tinnitus. Actually, I should say, in one of my ears, since I am deaf (and have been so since birth) in my left ear. The sound varies in loudness, and varies by how much it bothers me: early morning and late evening is more noticeable. It is usually with me 24×7.

This ringing in my ear isn’t the only kind of illness that people have where they imagine odd things about themselves or their environment. For example, there are people who suffer from Morgellon’s disease, where subjects literally think their skin is crawling with something, or think that their tongue or other parts of their mouth is burning or experience phantom pain in amputated limbs. The only common elements are that you can’t make these things stop, and  there is no known single cure and the physiological causes are mostly unknown. One school of thought is that all of these afflictions are in the subjects’ heads and not in the ears or mouth or whatnot. If you can figure out how to harness control of these issues with your brain, a subject can  control how much awareness about the malady and ultimately could be trained to ignore it.

This field of study is called neuro-plasticity and refers to research that has found that you can teach an old brain to do new tricks, in some cases actually reorganize its neural pathways. While this sounds like something out of the SyFy channel, it is very real stuff. There is an interesting blog post on Scientific American that is very readable that goes into more detail if you are interested. One area is using mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation techniques to build up more control over your environment and perceptions. Another is in developing better brain exercises.

Like some of you, for many years I have been doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles daily. I like doing them and it is a way for me to relax and get started with the day’s activities. But these aren’t really exercising my brain: think of them as doing arm curls with one pound weights. It might look like “exercising” but it is just movement and not building any real muscles. Or think about just being able to complete the Monday New York Times crossword — the easiest of the week’s puzzles — and not trying to do the Saturday or Sunday puzzles. You are short-changing your brain exercise routine.

To really work out your brain, you need a stronger set of exercises that can build the neural equivalent of muscle mass. A few years ago, I took part in a research study with my ENT doctor. I was part of a group of his patients that were using an early version of a software program that was designed to do these brain exercises. For 30 or 40 minutes every day, I had to use this tool to try to make my brain stronger. It was a frustrating experience for me, largely because it was the equivalent of trying to immediately bench press 400 pounds. Like I said, it was an early version.

Since then, the company has created a SaaS version called Brain HQ and has a freemium model where you can try out a few of the exercises online or using an iOS app here.  I haven’t tried out either yet and will document my experience at a later date. In the meantime, I still struggle with the ringing sounds. Some days are better than others.

When I was first diagnosed with tinnitus I went online and did a lot of my own research. I was lucky enough to find my way to the American Tinnitus Association and a load of help, including local meetups with fellow sufferers. Since then I have gotten more or less used to the ringing.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Understanding how to better exercise your brain

  1. Thanks for the link to Scientific American, their blogs are new to me and interesting.

    There is a great book on how the brain works by the inventor of the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins. It is not recent, but it is still the most meaningful book I know of on the topic.

    On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins, Times, 2004
    This book discusses how the brain works in clear non-academic language. Hardcover, 250 pages.

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