Cognitive Fitness Chapter 13 – Cognitive Stimulation – Use it or lose it!

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Recent blogs have considered environmental factors as we build up a picture of what goes on in the office. Our previous blog discussed how workplace lighting can effect mental performance. This time we consider the effect of cognitive stimulation!

Is it true that the more you use your brain, the better it works? Do we “use it or lose it”?

Well, research looking at the impact of mentally demanding work shows that it does indeed have a beneficial effect. Jobs that are cognitively demanding and varied, providing the opportunity to learn new things over time, can increase mental functioning and possibly reduce the effect of age-related decline.

Does it have to be work related?

This holds true with non-occupational activities as well – and is not restricted purely to the work environment. It isn’t sufficient however to just pursue hobbies and activities which aren’t particularly demanding – engagement isn’t enough – we need to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills for there to be a measurable difference.

Denise Park, lead researcher and psychological scientist at the University of Texas, said in a statement. “When you are inside of your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.” Which is something to give us all food for thought!

So while learning a new skill such as digital photography or quilting are demanding (tapping into working memory, long term memory and other high level cognitive processes), simply doing word puzzles for example doesn’t exercise us to the same degree and hence the improvement is much less marked.

Having an intellectually engaged and physically active lifestyle promotes successful cognitive aging – something that is important to all of us as we live longer and probably wish to be productive into later years.

Brain Plasticity

Our brains have been shown to be plastic in nature, so they can continue to grow or at least be maintained, given the right conditions and stimulus. If we stop using particular cognitive processes, this can result in them “wasting away” whereas if we subject ourselves to some stretching and challenging cognitive activities, these will help maintain or improve our abilities.

cognitive performance - cognitive stimulation - awa - advanced workplace associates - workplace management - workplace strategy So what can you do to improve cognitive performance?

Here are some thoughts:

    1. Be alert to the nature of your work, the demands it places on your brain and your talents, and the degree to which you are exposed to, and have the opportunity to get involved in new ideas, approaches, influences and activities. To some degree this links to our research on knowledge worker productivity, where one of the important factors is “external communication” – reinforcing the idea that variety and exposure to new / different sources of ideas and people is positive for supporting performance.
    2. If you are frequently bored with your work, not only is this a waste of your time and talents, but essentially you are allowing your brain to “die a little” by not using it well. Seek out opportunities for self-development, learn new skills and undertake new tasks wherever possible
    3. Pursue new hobbies that challenge you as these are the ones most likely to deliver benefits. Learn a new language or to play an instrument; take up a challenging activity such as singing (hard to do well!), or a sport such as golf.
    4. Be mindful that research shows that older people report that they have less access to occupational training and fewer opportunities to learn new skills. Don’t let that happen to you!

Give your brain a great day – seek out things that stimulate your brain! Next time we’ll look at the next environmental factor that came out of the research in cognitive performance. This is the 12th factor – scent!