The past month has been tough. All across the world, people have been asked to stay home and socially isolate themselves to protect themselves and their communities against the spread of the COVID19 pandemic. At Posit Science, we’ve all been working from home for five weeks now, sheltering in place with our families or roommates, and working to stay safe and healthy while making sure that we continue to support all of our BrainHQ users.
Staying at home and following the social isolation guidelines have an enormous effect on our lives, including both our physical health and brain health. Many people at home are adopting physical exercise programs—whether it’s going for a regular walk, getting back on that exercycle in the basement, or even working with a trainer over a video call.
But what about our brain health? If staying at home can contribute to a decline in our physical health—which we can address with an exercise program—what does staying at home and socially isolating do to our cognitive health?
To answer this question, we have to dive into our favorite topic at Posit Science: brain plasticity, the science of how the brain rewires itself through learning and experience. Engaging the brain in intensive, adaptive new learning (including doing BrainHQ training) rewires the brain in a positive way, making the brain faster and more accurate.
But brain plasticity is a two-way street. In the same way that the brain can build itself through positive brain plasticity, the brain can “unbuild” itself through negative brain plasticity. Put another way, if the brain lacks stimulation, novelty, and new learning, the brain adapts to this new situation and builds a brain that doesn’t process new information quickly and accurately—because the environment doesn’t depend on that.
So while we are staying at home and avoiding social contact, we’re depriving our brains of the cognitive stimulation and new learning that naturally come through our everyday lives and interactions with friends, co-workers, and even random strangers. And in the same way we might have a physical exercise program to help our physical fitness during quarantine, we should have a cognitive exercise program to help our cognitive fitness during quarantine.
Here are three ideas to get your quarantine cognitive exercise program started:
The best way to keep your brain healthy is to engage is to learn something new—and the best kind of learning for brain health involves hearing, seeing, and doing. Do you have a guitar in the closet or an old piano that hasn’t been used in a while? Order a beginner’s book online (here’s one for guitar, and one for piano), and plonk away. Or maybe you’d prefer to work on a new language—there are many great apps you can try on your phone (Duolingo and Babbel are both good choices, among many others). Or if something visual is more appealing, maybe it’s time to learn to draw. If you’re quarantining with family members, order a new game online and learn to play it (Patchwork, Azul, and Sushi Go are my family’s current favorites), It’s a good time to develop a skill that you’ve always had an itch for—it’s good for your brain health, and good for you.
You can take ordinary activities, and build on them to make them more cognitively engaging. If you’re out for a walk (and I hope you are, on a regular basis), then on each walk, make a point to notice something new in your neighborhood to exercise your attention and novelty detection. Take a slightly different route each walk to exercise your brain’s navigation skills. If you’re having a conversation on the phone with a family member or an old friend, take a moment to really describe where you are—what you can see, and what you can hear—even if it’s just your living room. This exercises your attention and your language skills. Then give the person you’re talking to the chance to do the same—and really vividly imagine their environment. This kind of mental imagery activates the same brain regions as actually being there! And reach out to people you haven’t spoken to in a long time—they’ll be delighted you thought of them, and the novelty and reminiscences will do your brain well.
It’s a good time to start BrainHQ for the first time (if you’re just joining us), or get back to BrainHQ if you’ve been away for a while. If you’re signed up for a free account, then do the daily spark every day—it takes only 5 minutes, and it’s a nice way to warm up your brain. If you have full access to BrainHQ through a subscription or through one of our partners, then use the personal trainer, and work towards a goal of training ~90 minutes per week spread out across a few days (that’s usually about 24 levels per week for most people). BrainHQ improves cognitive function, and in doing so, improves cognitive reserve (the underlying resilience of your brain)—a good investment in these times.
Above all, I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy during these troubled times. Getting physical exercise, cognitive exercise, and regular sleep can all help keep you healthy, sane, and happy—and ready to return to the world when that happy time comes.