Simple, low-cost, low-tech brain-training activities

By Heidi Godman, Harvard Health Blog | November 5th, 2021

How to boost your brain power and sharpen cognition

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We’re all looking for ways to boost our brain power. And fortunately, there are plenty of simple, low-cost, low-tech brain-training activities to help sharpen cognition.

“Low-tech, mentally stimulating activities, especially ones that are challenging, help our brains create new connections. The more connections we have, the more paths our brain has to get information to where it needs to go. This can help with improving cognition overall or in specific areas, depending on the activity,” says Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and faculty member of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.

Low-tech, simple brain-training activities to try

Mentally stimulating activities make you do a little cognitive light lifting: they require some work to process or produce information. These kinds of activities can include any of the following.

Learning a language

Bilingual people have greater mental flexibility and agility and may have some protection from the risk of developing dementia, compared to people who speak one language. Learning a second language later in life may even delay cognitive decline. To get started, listen to language recordings, take an online class, or download an app such as Babbel or Duolingo.

Listening to or making music

Music can activate almost all regions of the brain, including those involved with emotion, memory, and physical movement. Get in on this benefit by listening to new kinds of music, or by learning how to play an instrument. Check out playlists from other countries, or start learning to play an instrument by watching free videos on YouTube.

Playing card and board games

Games strengthen your ability to retrieve memories (if you play Trivial Pursuit, for example) or think strategically (if you play games like Monopoly or checkers). Playing card games is helpful because it requires you to use a number of mental skills at once: memory, visualization and sequencing.


Visiting a new place exposes you to sights and sounds that enhance brain plasticity, forming new connections in your brain. You might not be able to travel far due to COVID-19, but simply exploring areas nearby may produce brain changes. Consider driving to a town you’ve never visited before or going to an outdoor park with unfamiliar terrain (perhaps mountains or thick forests) to gain new perspectives.

Watching plays, films, concerts, or museum tours

Cultural activities stimulate the brain in many ways. While you may not be able to enjoy these activities indoors right now, it might be possible to see them outside or online. Choose something that requires a little effort to understand it, for example, a Shakespearean play or a foreign film (try to figure out what the characters are saying without reading the subtitles). If you’re watching a concert, choose one with complex classical compositions. If you’re looking at an online museum exhibit, try to pick up on the details the artist used to convey a message.

Doing word puzzles

Working on word puzzles (such as a crossword, Jumble, or Sudoku) has been shown to help people improve their scores on tests of attention, reasoning, and memory. Try a different kind of puzzle each day (for example, a Sudoku one day, a Jumble the next), and increase the level of difficulty as puzzles get easier.

Maximizing benefits of brain-training activities

Don’t limit yourself to one mentally stimulating activity: Some evidence suggests that the more of these activities you do, the more your risk for mild cognitive impairment will decrease.

And combining mentally stimulating activities with exercise, learning, or socializing may have an even more potent effect on cognition. For example:

  • Get physical and dance while you listen to new music.
  • Learn something by watching a video lecture about an artist before checking out an exhibit of the person’s work.
  • Socialize by playing a board game online with friends during a video call.

One thing you shouldn’t do: think of these activities as brain training chores. Just enjoy them because they’re fun. They’ll enhance your life, and they may wind up sharpening your cognition to boot.

Heidi Godman is executive editor at Harvard Health Letter.

© 2021 Harvard University. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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