Could mental exercises be what you do in counseling? Or could it be what you do in the exercise gym? What you do when you learn something new? What about memory training, is that mental exercise?
What about stomping on all those ants, or automatic negative thoughts, practicing prayer, and meditation, or biofeedback skills, or creating art or writing your journal.
They are all mental exercises, and according to Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, they change your brain, can make it bigger, like working out at the gym can do for your biceps.
In fact, regular physical exercise is an important aspect of mental exercise, it turns out.
The best kind of mental exercises, according to the brain fitness writers, are the kind that we do when we are learning a new language or learning to play a new instrument.
Language and music learning involve an increasing level of complexity and the opportunity to get about 80% of our challenges correct.
Mental exercises which do not meet those criterion are not the most effective mental exercises, so as a counselor, reading another counseling book will not be a mental exercise.
I know that we have been told for decades that cross word puzzles and vocabulary practice are the keys to mental sharpness across the life span, but new research is saying not so fast.
If we want to make sure that our mental exercise pays off over the entire course of our lives, perhaps it is important to take a look at what the brain fitness folks are saying about how to generate neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, tow capacities of the human brain which were unknown not too long ago.
I and all of us can grow new neurons on a daily basis, which enhance mental exercises, if I take care of the pillars of brain fitness, which are physical exercise, nutrition, (omega 3's and dark chocolate?) sleep, stress management, and novel learning experiences, which can mean learning a new language, learning how to play a new instrument, or even using one of the emerging computerized brain fitness programs.
So maybe before I worry about memory exercises for example, I do the work necessary for neurogenesis, build the platform for mental exericses, so to speak.
So if you are interested in knowing more about the pillars of brain fitness, then please check out a very well written e-book called Brainfit for Life by Simon Evans,Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D,neuroscientists at the University of Michigan. Their work is written for the layperson, with a sly sense of humor, though, so do not be intimidated by the credentials. Evans and Burghardt go through the pillars of brain fitness in some detail, beginning with the most important pillar, physical exercise.
The good news about the pillars of mental exercises is that we achieve the necessary progress for neurogenesis and neuroplasticity without having to undertake an Olympic kind of training regimen.
After all, our body is doing this for us everyday. But if I do not make some effort to address the pillars, then those new neurons emerge into a brain not prepared to fully maximize their use, so do exercise, eat lots of antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acid, get good sleep, manage your stress, not just once a day, but perhaps heart beat by heart beat, and learn a new language, or a new instrument.
And if you do not have the time for an instrument, or a language, then check out some of the emerging computerized brain fitness tools designed to keep us developing neurons.
There are a couple which have some very interesting research associated with them, the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program, and the Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Program.
I have used both of them, and can vouch for their efficiency and effectiveness as mental exercises.
The Mind Sparke is fun and a bit addictive, and is touted to increase your IQ. What I know is that your kids will be better at it than you, so get a head start on it, and the Posit Science Program was created by Michael Merzenich,Ph.D. one of the world's leading researchers on neuroplaticity. Mind Sparke is based on the research discussed in PNAS, mentioned by Evans and Burghardt, and the IMPACT study put the Posit Science Program to the test.
I also like the mental exercises provided by Lumosity, which I can keep booted up on my computer for practice when I need a dopamine boost. You know, change the focus of attention and let the unconscious work on the current problem for a bit. Wonderful mental exercises.
Very early in my personal growth experience, a wise person taught me to use the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was resentful or afraid and that phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
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