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Much the same way lifting weights increases muscle mass, engaging in mental exercise improves cognitive performance.

Turns out the cliché, “use it or lose it,” actually holds true when it comes to our brains. Research shows the brain is comparable to muscles in our body in this regard. If the brain is not used it will atrophy and weaken. On the other hand, if used it will grow and strengthen. In other words, the neural networks we need to solve problems can wither away or be reinforced and strengthened.

Consider your traditional physical workout regimen. Challenging muscles with weight and resistance increases muscle mass and strength. The exercises you do are important. If you confine your workout to only a single exercise, you will only enhance isolated muscles and if you do random exercises, you may not get the diversity you need. Different exercises work different muscle groups. Whenever you engage in a sport or activity outside of the gym, your muscles work in harmony. You do not engage in structured activities that are designed to challenge isolated muscles.

Mental exercise is no different. You need diversity. You need to engage in mental exercises that stimulate different areas of the brain. Many “brain games” only target one or two areas of the brain. If you only engage in one type of “brain game”, you will only enhance a single area of the brain. It is well documented which physical exercises work specific muscles. There are hundreds of books on physical exercise. The same is not true when it comes to mental exercises. People are not aware of the different areas of their brain and the mental exercises designed to enhance them. But this is vital information, and is addressed in this chapter. Just as our muscles work in harmony when we play sports, different areas of our brain work in harmony when we solve novel problems.

Engaging in a variety of mental exercises is not the only thing you need to do. Think back to weight-lifting. You cannot just lift the same amount of weight every time you work out. You need to keep challenging your muscles with more weight to see improvement. The same holds true with mental exercise. If you do not challenge your brain, it will not form new synaptic connections. Instead, it will primarily use those which already exist.

Challenge and variety are not enough. Your brain also needs novelty. A variety of challenging exercises is recommended, as you will form and strengthen new synaptic connections in many areas of your brain. Practicing the same mental exercises will only create a single path of synaptic connections and the exercises become less challenging with time. That is why novelty is so important. Every time you introduce your brain to an unfamiliar, complex, and challenging activity, it will create many new synaptic connections to complete the tasks at hand.

Proper variety engages multiple areas of your brain. Challenging and novel tasks allow these areas to grow and flourish. Without variety, challenge, and novelty, you will not achieve the best possible outcome. This chapter will discuss four key topics:

  1. The different areas of cognitive function you should exercise.
  2. Challenging/novel activities that enhance these specific areas.
  3. How much time you should devote to these activities.
  4. Ways to track your progress.

The Different Areas of Cognitive Function

Think of the different areas of cognitive function as different muscle groups. Depending on the physical activity performed, specific muscle groups are more important than others. For example, the muscles in your forearm are not important if you need to kick a soccer ball, but they are very much so if you need to grip an object.

Mental activities are no different. Depending on the task at hand, specific areas of cognitive function are more important than others. For example, spatial reasoning will not help you remember a long list of names. This regimen focuses on the "muscles" of cognition which improve your fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is one's capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations. An IQ test measures your fluid intelligence.