Have you ever felt like you’d fallen into a mental rut – that you’re not being challenged or learning anything new? Or perhaps you feel that all but your most basic skills are slipping away due to disuse.
Some years back, I had that feeling in a big way. I knew I had to do something about it, and quickly! For me, subscribing to an industry journal and reading every issue cover to cover was just the challenge I needed. In that way, I built upon what I already knew and stretched my understanding of new concepts.
However, this might not sound like the most fun way to spend your day! Everyone is different, which is why below, we will outline this and other fun strategies for sharpening your mind.
Play Games That Make You Think
Many forms of recreation are passive – scrolling on social media or bingeing a show on your favorite streaming service, for instance.
While these activities might feel relaxing, those that make you think, using your problem-solving skills, can be just as refreshing. Adding problem-solving skills to your resume and basic skillset is another bonus of such an activity. But what games should you try out, and where?
Thinking games come in many forms. Some apps and video games are touted as making you smarter or boosting your IQ. While such claims are unproven, puzzle games, word games, and number games do challenge your problem-solving skills.
Wordle and Suduko are great for solo play, but thinking games can also be enjoyed by groups of people. Try out a strategy board game like Catan. Attend trivia night at a local establishment. Try out an escape room, or engage your friends in an interactive who-done-it game like Mafia, with no equipment or travel required.
Learn a Language
Developing bilingual skills benefits you in several ways. First, the simple act of learning the language—memorizing new words and grammatical rules—stimulates your brain in ways that may have been neglected since high school.
Second, it gives you a deeper (or at least different) understanding of the world. For example, prior to a sojourn in Papua New Guinea, I spent six months studying Tok Pisin, an English creole that serves as a lingua franca in the region.
Some of the translations helped me look at my own understanding of the world in new ways. For example, to ask “How old are you?” you say “Hammas krismas yu gat?” In other words, “How many Christmases do you have?”
Similarly, there is no direct translation for the word “preteen.” Instead, one must describe that the child is between the ages of 10 and 12. This caused me to ponder how recently this and other words entered our own vocabulary.
Some languages have more or less words for emotions or colors. Others group objects or ideas differently than in English, such as masculine or feminine. Learning a language thus challenges you to break ethnocentric ideas and see things through someone else’s eyes.
Finally, practicing your newfound language skills with a native speaker is sure to utilize your problem-solving skills in a unique way. If you don’t yet know the word for something, how will you get your point across? This process can be both challenging and rewarding.
Read or Listen
At the outset, we discussed how learning new things through reading can sharpen the mind. But not all books (or online resources) are created equal. For example, a pulp fiction novel will not sharpen your mind like a technical manual full of new vocabulary would.
How can you choose reading material that will sharpen your mind? First, look for a subject that truly interests you. It might be related to your career field, a hobby, or simply something you are curious about.
Next, look for information on this subject that goes beyond what you already know. When reading, don’t skip over unfamiliar words – make a list of them and look them up.
Look for opportunities to tell others about what you are learning. When you can explain a complex subject in a simple way (perhaps to someone who does not have a background in the subject), this is proof that you understand it well. Speaking also provides repetition and engages your own sense of hearing, further cementing what you have learned and making it easier to remember in the future.
Speaking of the sense of hearing, audio books and podcasts are a great way to take in information if feel that you are too busy to read much. You can listen while engaging in other activities, such as commuting, exercising, or doing household chores.
Finally, try to engage your critical thinking skills when taking in new information. Today, anyone can compose and publish online content. Not all blogs or articles are written by experts, and misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and “fake news” proliferate online.
Before internalizing new information, ask yourself, “Can I back this up by checking other trustworthy sources? How does it compare to what I already know? Does the writer seem to have an agenda, perhaps motivating a certain action or provoking an emotional reaction?” Doing so will expand your critical thinking skills.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), physical activity boosts brain health. “Physical activity can help you think, learn, problem-solve, and enjoy an emotional balance. It can improve memory and reduce anxiety or depression. Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia.”
Interestingly, some language-learning classes teach students to engage in physical activities such as tossing a ball or juggling scarves while practicing vocabulary. It is theorized that this physical movement helps engage the brain and improve focus and concentration.
There are numerous methods for sharpening your thinking skills, no matter your age. Instead of engaging in “mindless” recreation like surfing the web or watching TV, try problem-solving or strategy games instead.
Or you could apply yourself to learning a new language. Not only is bilingualism a valuable skill in itself, but it engages the mind and prompts problem-solving during early attempts to communicate with native speakers.
Read books or listen to podcasts on subjects that both interest you and challenge you to learn new things. Teach someone else what you’ve learned. Use your critical thinking skills to identify possible misinformation.
Don’t forget to get plenty of exercise too, perhaps even while listening to your favorite educational podcast!