Mental Fitness
December 28, 2011 6:33 AM   Subscribe

How do I get myself in shape mentally? If I spent my life on the couch eating junk food, you might recommend running, weight lifting, a healthy diet, or yoga to get me in shape. Well, I have spent my life drinking beers, smoking weed, and watching mind numbing television. How can I get myself in shape mentally?

I have a horrible memory now. My word recall is slow. I can't do math in my head anymore. Remembering numbers or lists is a difficult task. How can I get my sharp mind back? What is the equivalent of stair master for my brain? Are there protein shakes for cognition outside of adderall? Help me run my first mental marathon.
posted by kaizen to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Getting yourself in shape physically will actually help your mental fitness as well. So actually, running etc. would be a good place to start.

You could also read some good popular science books and start playing games such as Scrabble. Anything that's fun and mentally stimulating will be valuable.
posted by Nick Jordan at 6:44 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's worth pointing out that you don't necessarily need to do math in your head or remember numbers and lists as long as you build habits to supplement your deficit. You can always carry a small notebook and pen in your pocket that you pull out whenever you might need to remember something.

But to more directly answer your question, make a goal for yourself that involves working on one of those skills.

You might work through the basic math videos and assessments on the Kahn Academy website.
You might join a serious book club.
You might make a goal to read one important book a month.
You might also limit your tv-watching, or beer-drinking, or weed-smoking
posted by jander03 at 6:44 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the key is training: practice and engagement. Crosswords puzzles might be a good idea. Brain Age for the Nintendo DS gets a lot of good press as well. Regular exercise is also good for mental health - mens sana in corpore sano, as they ancients used to say.
posted by jquinby at 6:45 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Start doing crosswords. Do them every day. When they get too easy, buy a big book of New York Times Sunday crosswords.

Note exactly why they're getting easier: It's becoming easier for you to call up the information and/or the process of doing them has caused you to go look things up and you're retaining the information better.

Try sudoku. Again, note that it gets easier and see if you can't figure out why: Your brain is getting better at recognizing patterns.

Move on to cryptic crosswords. This will help build skills in lateral thinking.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:49 AM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have spent my life drinking beers, smoking weed, and watching mind numbing television. How can I get myself in shape mentally?

You sort of answer your own question here. Don't drink beer (at least to excess), don't smoke weed, and don't watch mind-numbing television.

If you replace all the time that you spend doing these three activities with, say, reading a book, or playing a musical instrument, or learning chess, or exercising, or socializing with friends, you will be using your brain in new ways.
posted by dfriedman at 6:50 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try doing something you've never done before (begin studying another language, for instance) or taking a class. There's something about a classroom setting, assignments and deadlines that makes focusing a priority. Walk every day. Eat well, get enough sleep. Meditate or start reading about meditation. Read and keep a journal each day. Deliberately practice focusing your attention (exercises such as staring at the tip of a pencil for three minutes increasing to five then ten etc--then writing everything you can about or drawing it, for example). Consider quitting drinking. It would add to your brain fog initially but ultimately would leave you feeling more motivated and able to focus.
posted by marimeko at 7:00 AM on December 28, 2011

Yeah, TV's a brain suck. I don't drink much or smoke anything, but TV was my Waterloo for a long time. I've started making a conscious effort of telling myself, "are you actually watching what's on, or are you just zoning out? You're not watching? Then turn that beast off." That makes me at least use my brain for the few minutes it takes me to figure out something else to do instead.

Also, pay attention to how much sleep you're getting, and how good it is. If you're not really getting much sleep, that can give you a serious brain fog.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on December 28, 2011

If you want to ease your way into it, and not give up all of your tv-watching, beer-drinking times:
Watch Jeopardy! every day. If you want to get fancy, keep score. At least try to say the answers out loud rather than just watching. (J-archive has every old episode if you get sucked in)
Join a pub trivia league.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:04 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Find something comparatively complex that you care about and read a lot of books on it - start with popular ones and work up to difficult ones. Particularly, find something that branches out - for example, I've read quite a lot about fashion, which is frivolous, but have picked up quite a lot of labor history, economic history, knowledge of immigration and so on that has helped me in reading more serious books.

Don't just read pop books - read the pop book and then work your way through the bibliography, or at least the parts of it that you can handle.

The purposes of reading pop books are - aside from accumulating some basic information, although pop books can be pretty unreliable - to help you to formulate interesting questions and to get you accustomed to reading long things instead of internet-length things. (I am so old that I remember when Salon and similar outlets would run comparatively long pieces - five or six pages with lots of text on each one. Those were the days.)
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lemurrhea is right about Jeopardy!. Most people with average educations learned the answers to many of those questions at one time, and just forgot. The act of trying to recall the answers is (for me anyway) mentally challenging. My old algebra teacher used to proclaim that you only learned if you had to struggle with something. I thought he was being a dick, but I think he was right. The mental struggle is the brain exercising itself.
posted by gjc at 7:12 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

No more beer.

No more weed.

I don't know if you have an addiction or not, so this advice will be harder or easier to follow depending on that; I'm obviously not qualified to give advice on addiction but, if beer and weed are your right hand, cut off your right hand. This should start today, this minute.

Set the alarm for an hour-and-a-quarter earlier tomorrow morning, spend 7 minutes putting on your running gear, an hour running (or fast walking if you can't manage to run all the time), and then 7 minutes taking off your running gear when you get home.

Keep doing this 6 days a week, while you figure out what other exercise you'd like to do better than running. On the 7th day, do yoga.

On February 1st, you start Operation Learn A New Language. No matter what method you use, you are going to make this technique a part of your learning method:

Get a ruled notebook, and fold the page in half down the middle. Down the left side, you are going to write the English words. Down the right side, you are going to write the Foreign words. If there are variants or grammar irregularities, learn each variant or irregularity as though it were a separate word.

Learn ten words a day. Memorize them first in Foreign, until you can go through the list of ten and get all of them right. Then switch and memorize the English translations until you can get all of them right.

Do this in sets of a hundred. Once you've learned today's ten, go back to the beginning of this hundred and review the preceding words in sets of ten. This is arduous, so you only have to do it in one direction a day: English to Foreign, or Foreign to English, but not both on the same day.

When you get to the end of a hundred, the next two days will be spent reviewing the whole hundred, in one direction each time.

Then you go back to the beginning of the current thousand, and review those in sets of a hundred in one direction.

When you get to the end of a thousand... you get the idea.
posted by tel3path at 7:12 AM on December 28, 2011 [30 favorites]

in order to improve your thinking, it's necessary to improve your ability to concentrate. i'm not sure weed and beer are that great for concentration but i can guarantee you that watching television and surfing the web are terrible for it. all you need to do is to use your brain in a focused way for a few minutes a day and you'll see improvement. the thing is, you have to *focus really hard* - that's the part that hurts at the beginning. i agree with tel3path that language acquisition is great mental exercise, but i would caution you against committing yourself to a rigid schedule before you've even picked up a book. you're going to have to spend some time figuring out what type of studying works for you - if your expectations are too high at the beginning you'll quit and go back to the tv the first time you feel frustrated.

personally, reading math books and doing the exercises is my favorite mental exercise.

as others have said, exercise is essential for mental health.
posted by facetious at 7:27 AM on December 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing crossword puzzles, as well as the logic puzzles where you have a grid you fill in according to clues to work out who brought what dish to the party in which order, or whatever.

Also, yeah, read. Find books on things you're interested in, or think you might be interested, and just settle down and read them. And then read what's in the bibliography.
posted by naturalog at 7:41 AM on December 28, 2011

I'm working through the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and highly recommend it for mental fitness. It's ostensibly a book about learning to draw, but it's really a blend of neuroscience, art technique and meditation. I'm finding it an excellent way to teach myself concentration.
posted by ukdanae at 7:41 AM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Get back in shape physically/start exercising and read books. I usually try to read for an hour or so before bed each night and aside from getting in some reading time it helps me wind down and get to sleep.
posted by fromageball at 7:47 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Memorization. Pick a story, poem, or monologue and try to memorize one line a day. It will get easier and easier, and over the course of a few months you'll be able to memorize almost anything and recite it at very useful moments.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:11 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I glanced at some of your previous questions. Get rid of the television completely, some day your kids will thank you as mine have. Listen to books on tape while you drive or walk. Read the newspaper every day- however, if your city paper is as lousy as mine, it might only take a few minutes. Build something with your kids, a tree fort maybe. Working with your hands is good for stimulating other parts of your mind. Take up dancing or yoga. Go hiking. Explore a new place every weekend. Play board games with your family. Cook.
posted by mareli at 8:25 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read this book to understand how exercise helps your brain.

Also try taking fish oil, it is supposed to be very good for your brain. I don't have any research handy but you can google "fish oil cognition" and probably come up with some good info.

A bootcamp-style overhaul may work for some people, but you might find smaller changes easier to stick with at first.

If you don't really want to give up smoking & drinking, try cutting back by restricting your use to certain times or days. Spend the time you are not wasted working on brain-building activities.

Since you like watching TV, try watching better stuff on your TV. Good documentaries, classic films, biographies, movie versions of Shakespeare.

Read some stuff. Books related to your now-improved TV choices might be appealing if something really sparks your interest.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:37 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a big believer in making friends with cool folks who are smarter than me. Not only do I learn cool things from them, it motivates me to learn more about things that interest me so that I have some interesting things to talk about myself.
posted by smirkette at 8:53 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Giving up on the tv is probably the overall healthiest option, not to mention the easiest.
posted by magullo at 9:14 AM on December 28, 2011

I can't recommend meditation strongly enough. It may not directly improve your memory and intellect, but it will help your clarity, concentration, and general well-being. Studies abound nowadays on the healthy effect of mindfulness and concentration meditation on the brain. Subjectively, it helps me so broadly and amazingly that I feel a bit sad about how difficult it is to effectively recommend to people who see it as new-agey or weird.
posted by mbrock at 9:23 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aside from beer, weed, and television, what things are you interested in? What things do you want to learn? Start from there.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:25 AM on December 28, 2011

Firstly - and most importantly - I find that exercising hard gets my brain working better.

If you want to work particularly at improving your memory, you might want to try the N-Back exercise. You can download the N-Back software Brain Workshop for free.

Whenever I want to get back in shape mentally, I like reading interesting and thought-provoking articles online. Some great sites that aggregate such writing include Arts and Letters Daily, Bookforum, 3 Quarks Daily, and The Browser. Not only does good short writing make me think, it also gives me various avenues for exploring longer-form reading (i.e books) and writing of my own. If you wish to follow this path, I heartily recommend blogging or keeping a diary about all the interesting stuff you've read lately. I believe that this transition from the "passive" to the "active" mode really helps sharpen the mind.

Several people in this thread have recommended crossword puzzles. Much in the same vein, if you know to play chess, the puzzles of Raymond Smullyan (see this) are great fun. Puzzles with a broadly mathematical flavor can be very interesting as well (even for someone without any background in math) - the work of the great Martin Gardner is canonical.

Finally, if you find something that you are interested in, and would like to really dig deep in that specific field, try finding a free online course from a top university. This is a great aggregated resource for this purpose. Two of my favourite courses are Michael Sandel's legendary "Justice" course, and Robert Sapolsky's course on Human Behavioral Biology - and I have an engineering background, just going to show that these courses are highly accessible to folk without any relevant prior knowledge.
posted by rahulrg at 9:36 AM on December 28, 2011 [17 favorites]

Oops - got the wrong link for Gardner. Here is the right Wiki link.
posted by rahulrg at 9:39 AM on December 28, 2011

Personally, I read a lot of good writing on nonfiction topics where I have no or little expertise. Not only do I learn things, but I have to look things up a lot and read more to get some background, so it becomes a whole little project of learning about , not just reading a book and calling it a day. I also try to have a project to learn a particular skill outside my comfort zone.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:01 AM on December 28, 2011

You can't go wrong starting with exercise and talking to people in the outside world.
posted by rhizome at 10:17 AM on December 28, 2011

I'm surprised only one person above recommended N-Back exercises. They're like pushups for your brain.

This Article in Wired made the rounds a few months ago.
Forget Brain Age: Researchers Develop Software That Makes You Smarter

Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test.

But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)

Buschkuehl's team postulates that the n-back task improves working memory -- how many pieces of information subjects can keep in their head -- as well as the ability to control the brain's attention. Fluid intelligence tests require those types of thinking, and the training improved performance in these underlying skills.
As mentioned above, the open source Brain Workshop software (multi platform) is a Dual N-Back exercise.

It's a game similar to Memory (aka Concentration where you need to remember what happened a few moves ago - or "n moves back" or "n back". The Dual part comes in the form of both position in space (location on a 3x3 grid) and sound cues (letters being said aloud) or color. The "n" part - how many moves back - increases over time - from 2 moves ago to 3 moves ago to 4 moves ago etc. Believe me, this is difficult, but if you can stick with it and concentrate on it for 25 minutes a day you should see improvements in fluid intelligence.
Fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic. It is necessary for all logical problem solving, especially scientific, mathematical and technical problem solving. Fluid reasoning includes inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.


Susanne M. Jaeggi, from the University of Michigan, found that healthy young adults, who practiced a demanding working memory task (dual n-back) approximately 25 minutes per day for between 8 and 19 days, had statistically significant increases in their scores on a matrix test of fluid intelligence taken before and after the training than a control group who did not do any training at all. [Jaeggi, Susanne M.; Buschkuehl, Martin; Jonides, John; and Perrig, Walter J. (2008). "Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory." PNAS- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]
I'd also recommend embarking on a system of study any topic you like - though the Logical Reasoning section of the LSAT seems like a good place to start if the purpose is to sharpen your mind.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:11 PM on December 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Here's an odd suggestion but I'll toss it in the mix in case it appeals to you: crochet. I decided to (re-)learn it, and spent just an hour or so a day on it for about a week. I was very surprised to find that the process of learning something with my hands seemed to increase my overall mental sharpness a bit. There are lots of possibilities: knitting, woodworking, model building, art, music. An activity like this could be appealing even at times when your mind doesn't feel up to thinking about something more intellectual. It would be good to have some alternatives in between Calculus for Fun and mind-numbing TV.
posted by Corvid at 1:31 PM on December 28, 2011

Nthing those who have suggested meditation:

Eight Weeks to a Better Brain
posted by sockpup at 4:55 PM on December 28, 2011

Listen to the news (NPR plug!), read the news, engage with different points of view... challenge your own beliefs.
posted by carpediem at 11:51 PM on December 28, 2011

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