You have probably heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” But how can you “use it” effectively?

The short story

Keep learning. Activities you have already mastered—even if you found them challenging at one point—won’t do your brain much good.

Based on their detailed understanding of the brain, neuroscientists suggest you choose activities that fit these criteria:

  1. They should teach you something new. The brain is a learning machine. To keep it strong, you must continually develop new skills.
  2. They should be challenging. Activities should command your full and close attention to drive chemical changes in the brain.
  3. They should be progressive. You can begin a new activity at an easy level, but continuously challenge yourself to stay on the edge of your performance abilities—at your “threshold”—so that you improve. This goes for old activities you enjoy, too: pushing yourself to improve will help your brain.
  4. They should engage your great brain processing systems. Tasks in which you must make fine distinctions about what you hear, see or feel and use that information to achieve complex goals drive the brain to change its abilities on different levels.
  5. They should be rewarding. Rewards amplify brain changaes, leading to improved learning and memory. They turn up the production of crucial brain chemicals that contribute to learning, memory, and good spirits.
  6. They should be novel or surprising. New, positive and surprising experiences exercise the brain machinery that makes you bright and alert.

It might sound hard to find activities that meet all of these criteria. But the truth is that many new activities will meet most of them. Learning to cha-cha, improving your Spanish, taking up juggling—if you put in the right effort, they all challenge your brain (this is hard!), get progressively harder (move up to Lesson 2), engage several brain systems (motor skills, listening, the visual system), reward you (I can finally do that!), and surprise you (what comes next?).