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14 Weird Brain Exercises That Help You Get Smarter

Giving your brain new experiences will keep it healthier. Try these mini mental workout exercises to prevent memory loss and sharpen your mind.

woman thinkingistock/pixdeluxe

“Neurobic” exercises are like cross-training for your brain

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—devised by neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, and Manning Rubin for the book Keep Your Brain Alive—during your morning routine or your downtime and see if you feel the difference.

couple brushing teethistock/kupicoo

Brush your 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 in the parts of the cortex that control and process tactile information from the hand. Brain exercise: Brush with the hand you wouldn’t normally use, and don’t forget to open the tube and apply toothpaste in reverse, too. Here are more morning brain boosters to do before work.

woman showering with eyes closedistock/andresr

Shower with your eyes closed

Your hands will probably notice varied textures of your own body that you don’t “see” and will send messages back to your brain. Brain exercise: Try using just your tactile senses (but 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.

woman walking dogLeonardo Patrizi/istock

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. Don’t miss these other 50 mind-blowing facts you never knew about your brain.

messy family taking selfieistock/Geber86

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, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture. Brain exercise: Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.

family taking seats at dinner tableistock/mediaphotos

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 which position you occupy, who you relate to, your view of the room, and even how you reach for salt and pepper. Serve some of these 25 brain-boosting foods for an even smarter meal.

bottle and flower petalistock/Moncherie

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 odor—say, vanilla, citrus, or peppermint—to an activity, you’ll alert new neural pathways. Brain exercise: Keep an extract of your favorite scent near your bed for a week. Open it and inhale when you first wake up, and then again as you bathe and dress.

woman sticking head out car windowistock/deimagine

Open the car window

The hippocampus, an area of your brain that processes memories, is especially involved in associating odors, 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.

stack of coins in handistock/temmuz can arsiray

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 during a walk, and identify them when you stop at a corner. Here are 12 more easy ways to get smarter in your spare time.

fly swatteristock/BigRedCurlyGuy

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. For 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.

woman looking at label in supermarketistock/eternalcreative

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. Check out these science-backed tricks for looking smarter.

women drawingistock/Christopher Futcher

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, colors, 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.

couple at cash registeristock/pixdeluxe

Make more social connections during your day

Scientific research has repeatedly proved that social deprivation has severe negative effects on overall cognitive abilities. Brain exercise: Thirsty? Buy a drink from a person rather than a vending machine. Need gas? Pay the clerk at the counter rather than just swiping your credit card at the pump. Further flex your brain by trying your hand at these brain teasers that will leave you stumped.

couple reading istock/mediaphotos

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 the roles of reader and listener. It may take a while to get through a book, but in addition to giving your brain a workout, you’ll also get to spend some quality time together.

bowl of soup with bamboo shootsistock/Buretsu

Eat unfamiliar foods

Your olfactory system can distinguish millions of odors by activating unique combinations of receptors in your nose. There’s a direct link to the emotional center of your brain, so new odors 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.

Keep Your Brain Alive book coverbrain exercises brain alive cover

Get more brain workouts

But wait—there’s more! Check out Keep Your Brain Alive for dozens of other neurobic exercises that will increase your mental fitness and help prevent memory loss. Then try these other memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.

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Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on October 18, 2019