Giving your brain new experiences will keep it healthier

Giving your brain new experiences that combine physical senses – vision, smell, touch, taste and hearing – with emotional “sense” stimulates more connections between different brain areas, causes nerve cells to produce natural brain nutrients that dramatically help memory and makes surrounding cells stronger and more resistant to the effects of aging. Try these brain exercises during your morning routine or your down time and see if you feel the difference.

Brush teeth with your non-dominant hand

Research has shown that using the opposite side of your brain (as in this exercise) can result in a rapid and substantial expansion of in the parts of the cortex that control and process tactile information from the hand.

Brain exercise: Brush, and don’t forget to open the tube and apply toothpaste in reverse, too.

Shower with your eyes closed

Your hands will probably notice varied textures of your own body you don’t “see,” and will send messages back to your brain.

Brain exercise: Try using just your tactile senses (although, use common sense to avoid burn or injury). Locate the taps solely by feel, and adjust the temperature. Then wash, shave and so on with your eyes shut.

Switch around your morning activities

Brain imaging studies show that novel tasks exercise large areas of the cortex, indicating increased levels of brain activity in several distinct areas. This activity declines when the task becomes routine and automatic.

Brain exercise: Get dressed after breakfast, walk the dog on a new route or change your TV or news station. Even watching a kids’ program like Sesame Street, for example, may arouse the brain to notice how much of what you take for granted is explored in depth by children.

Turn familiar objects upside down (literally)

When you look at things right-side up, your left “verbal” brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention elsewhere. When they’re upside down, your right brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colours and relationships of a puzzling picture.

Brain exercise: Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock or an illustrated calendar upside down.

Switch seats at the table

In most families, everyone has his or her “own” seat, but your brain benefits from new experiences.

Brain exercise: Switch seats to change whose position you occupy, who you relate to, your view of the room and even how you reach for salt and pepper.

Make a new connection with your nose

You probably don’t remember when you “learned” to associate the smell of coffee with the start of a day. However, by linking a new odour – say, vanilla, citrus or peppermint – to an activity, you’ll alert new neural pathways.

Brain exercise: Keep an extract of your favourite scent near your bed for a week. Open it and inhale when you first wake up, and then again as you bathe and dress.

Open the car window

The hippocampus, an area of your brain that processes memories, is especially involved in associating odours, sounds and sights to construct mental maps.

Brain exercise: Try to identify new smells and sounds on your route. Opening the windows provides these circuits with more raw material.

Play with spare change

Because our brains regularly rely on visual cues to distinguish between objects, using touch to identify subtly different things increases activation in cortical areas that process tactile information and leads to stronger synapses. (Similarly, adults who lose their sight learn to distinguish Braille letters because their brain devotes more pathways to processing fine touch.)

Brain exercise: Place a cup full of coins in your car’s drink holder. While at a stoplight, try to determine the denominations by feel alone. You can also put coins in your pocket, and identify them when you stop at a corner.

Play “10 Things”

Forcing your brain to think of alternates to the everyday will help keep it strong.

Brain exercise: Someone hands you an ordinary object, and you must demonstrate 10 different “things” that the object might be. Example: A fly swatter might be a tennis racket, a golf club, a fan, a baton, a drumstick, a violin, a shovel, a microphone, a baseball bat or a canoe paddle.

Scan at the supermarket

Stores are designed to have the most profitable items at eye level, and when you shop you don’t really see everything there.

Brain exercise: Stop in any aisle and look at the shelves, top to bottom. If there’s something you’ve never seen before, pick it up, read the ingredients and think about it. You don’t have to buy it to benefit; you’ve broken your routine and experienced something new.

Do an art project in a group

Art activates the nonverbal and emotional parts of the cerebral cortex. When you create art, you draw on parts of your brain interested in forms, colours and textures, as well as thought processes very different from the logical, linear thinking that occupies most of your day.

Brain exercise: Ask each person to draw something associated with a specific theme like a season, an emotion or a current event.

Read differently

When we read aloud or listen to reading, we use very different brain circuits than when we read silently to ourselves.

Brain exercise: Read aloud with your partner or a friend, alternating roles of reader and listener. It may be slow to get through a book, but as a bonus you’ll spend quality time together.

Eat unfamiliar foods

Your olfactory system can distinguish millions of odours by activating unique combinations of receptors in your nose. There’s a direct link to the emotional centre of your brain, so new odours may evoke unexpected feelings and associations.

Brain exercise: Choose a cuisine unfamiliar to you, and browse the variety of novel vegetables, seasonings and packaged goods.