Brain-Building Hobbies to Improve Cognitive Function

Discover the link between activities such as reading, knitting or making music and mental health.

crossword puzzles

The ability of word and number puzzles to improve brain health may be overhyped.

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Most of us lead busy lives—between work, housekeeping, making meals, gardening, family activities and volunteering, our schedules get pretty packed. Yet we all find time for leisure activities. On an average day, nearly everyone age 15 and older engages in some sort of leisure activity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), defined as watching TV, socializing, using computers for leisure, playing games, reading or exercising. Men spend a bit more time on leisure activities at about six hours daily, while women spend just over five hours a day on leisure activities. Those age 75 and older enjoy the most leisure time at eight hours a day, but even the busiest age group—35 to 44 year olds—makes time for just over four hours of leisure daily.

So how do we make use of this precious free time? Well, television watching is the No. 1 leisure activity, occupying nearly three hours a day on average, more than half of leisure time. Socializing, the next most common activity, accounts for about 38 minutes a day, while reading got an hour per day by those older than 75 and just eight minutes per day for those aged 15 to 19.

What barely registers throughout these statistics is time spent on the many hobbies that are scientifically proven to help improve the health and function of our brains. While we all need some “veg” time to sit back, turn off our brains and enjoy being entertained, we could do ourselves a big favor if we spent a few of our free hours engaged in one of the activities that follow.

Make Music

Emerging studies are discovering how making music—both playing an instrument and singing in a choral group (but not just listening to music)—can benefit our brains in multiple ways. In one 2003 study, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug found that “the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of gray matter than the brains of nonmusicians had” and that 15 months of early-childhood musical training led to structural brain changes associated with motor and auditory improvements, reports National Geographic. In research conducted by Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, scientists found direct evidence that musical training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems, remodeling the brain in a way that improves sound processing. This is significant because “children from families of lower socioeconomic status process sound less efficiently, in part because of noisier environments and also due to linguistic deprivation—or not hearing enough complex words, sentences and concepts,” writes Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. “This puts them at increased risk of academic failure or dropping out of school.”

What’s more, it appears the more years we play an instrument, the more benefits we gain—even if we later stop playing. In a 2011 study reported in National Geographic, people who spent at least 10 years playing an instrument scored highest—compared to those with no musical training, who scored lowest, and those who’d played for one to nine years, who scored in the middle—on a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests, including nonverbal and visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information. Intriguingly, the musicians didn’t lose all of these benefits even if they hadn’t played in decades. To gain the greatest benefits, research suggests it’s best to begin musical training within the crucial developmental period before age 9; however, even older people gain brain power from taking up an instrument. “Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85,” writes Diane Cole for National Geographic. “After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.” 

Learn a Language

Learning a second language is another activity that bolsters our brain health and cognitive performance, regardless of when we learn it and—good news for some of us!—regardless of how fluently we can speak the language (simply attempting to learn the basics confers positive effects).

Studies support bilingualism’s ability to improve our reading abilities, verbal fluency and overall intelligence, as well as delay the onset of dementia. In one epidemiological study, Thomas Bak, a researcher from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, compared intelligence data from tests on 262 individuals at age 11 to see how their cognitive abilities had changed when they were tested again in their 70s. He found that those who spoke two or more languages had “significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected from their baseline test,” reports the BBC, and found the strongest effects in general intelligence and reading. It didn’t matter if the individuals learned a language before the age of 18, or later in life.

Learning a second language seems to confer more abstract mental effects as well. For example, some scientists think forcing the brain to juggle two languages helps it weed out irrelevant information and focus on important information. These skills make bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks and, thus, multitasking, according to Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology at Penn State. Other research suggests that bilinguals are more perceptive of their surroundings, with enhanced emotional intelligence and improved decision-making skills. Researchers attribute this last ability to learning to think beyond the face value of what’s being said, and consider the subtle implications and nuance of language, particularly when it comes to marketing and advertising language. 

Arts & Crafts

While there hasn’t been as much research on this topic, the evidence is promising that crafting activities such as knitting, quilting and sewing may benefit the brain. Several experts support the ability of these activities to reduce anxiety and induce a calm, happy and focused state. One psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, cites decades of research in support of the effects of creativity, which produces something he calls “flow.” By fully engaging in a complex task, our brains are forced to forget other stresses. “When we are involved in [creativity],” Csikszentmihalyi said during a 2004 TED talk, “You know what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”

Catherine Carey Levisay, a clinical neuropsychologist and wife of CEO John Levisay, told CNN she believes crafting may offer unique cognitive benefits because it involves several distinct brain areas—those involved in memory and attention span, as well as visuospatial processing, creativity and problem-solving. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and reported by CNN, scientists found leisure activities including playing games, reading books and crafting were able to reduce chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30 to 50 percent.

Studies also suggest that making art—such as painting, sculpting, drawing, etc.—has similar positive effects on the brain. In a study of 28 retired adults in Germany reported in the journal PLOS One, researchers found that creating art offered positive neural effects on psychological resilience: Compared with a group who observed art, those who made it saw an increase in the interactivity between brain regions, something that decreases with age or in cases of neuropsychiatric disorders and in those with chronic pain. A lack of brain region interactivity is correlated with poor working memory performance. An increase in the activation of these parts in the brain also means creating art may increase self-awareness, focus and the regulation of emotions.

The researchers speculate that the reason these results occur from making art, and not just from looking at art, has to do with the concept of “flow,” just as is seen in crafting, saying, “The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience—an experience of ‘flow,’—in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity.” 

Read Fiction

Most of us assume that reading is good for our brains, but we’re probably not sure why or how, and many of us still don’t do it. One report noted that for 2002 a whopping 33 percent of college graduates reported they didn’t read any literature in the 12-month period. Yet numerous studies have investigated the role of reading—specifically, reading fiction—on brain health and function. One of the biggest reasons reading is so good for us is that it’s a highly complex task (one we developed quite recently on the evolutionary time-scale), requiring several brain regions to work together. Neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta have discovered that reading a novel appears to help enhance connectivity in the brain, reports ABC News. And the enhanced connectivity continued for a full five days after study participants had finished reading a novel.

One of reading’s other major mental benefits is that it increases a quality known as theory of mind—the ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intents and desires to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own, according to Psychology Today. This ability may translate into the ability to be compassionate and have empathy for others—to put ourselves in another real person’s shoes, much as we do with fictional characters.

Puzzled Yet?

You’ve probably heard that doing word and number puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku can improve brain health and fight against memory loss. And, although doing these sorts of puzzles certainly doesn’t harm our brains, their benefits may be a bit overhyped. While doing crossword puzzles will enhance your ability to do crossword puzzles, enabling you to complete this specific task more efficiently, this type of activity doesn’t require numerous brain areas, which means it doesn’t confer the same overarching impact as learning something new does. So, while you should continue to do crossword puzzles or Sudoku if you enjoy it, to enhance your cognitive skills you’re better off trying a hobby that involves a combination of learning new skills and creativity.

Game Your Brain

If you’ve ever uttered or heard the phrase “video games will rot your brain,” you might think again. Around the world, researchers are investigating the potential brain benefits of video games, including the ability to process visual information more quickly. In Germany, researchers have found that subjects who played Super Mario 64 DS over a period of two months saw growth in three brain areas—the prefrontal cortex, the right hippocampus and the cerebellum—which are all involved in navigation and fine motor control, the BBC reports. And other researchers, including Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco, are working to develop games specifically designed to help keep aging brains sharp. Gazzaley’s game, Neuroracer, helped improve elderly players’ working memories and attention spans after 12 hours of play. In England, members of the BBC Horizon program recruited a group of elderly volunteers to learn to play a popular driving game, logging around 15 hours of game time over the course of five weeks. Their working memories and attention spans were tested before and after, and both scores increased by about 30 percent on average.

However, the science of gaming’s effects on the brain may be more complicated. A recent study by the Douglas Research Institute in Montreal found that, while video game players did exhibit more efficient visual attention abilities (confirming previous studies), they were more likely to use navigation strategies that rely on the brain’s reward system (the caudate nucleus), rather than the brain’s spatial memory system (the hippocampus). The study’s first author, Gregory West, Ph.D., explains, “Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower gray matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus. This means that people who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Future studies using neuroimaging will enable researchers to learn more about current findings and help us understand gaming’s effects on the brain more thoroughly.

Mold Your Mind

Although it’s more of a practice than a hobby, meditation is likely our most effective tool when it comes to actually reshaping and rewiring the connections within our brains. In an article in Psychology Today, Rebecca Gladding, a clinical instructor and attending psychiatrist at UCLA, and an expert in anxiety, depression and mindfulness, explains the mechanisms by which engaging in 15 to 30 minutes of daily meditation restructures the connections between various regions of the brain, thereby affecting how we react to and process the world around us.

When we meditate, a few neurological changes take place: First, we strengthen the connection between the part of the brain Gladding calls the Assessment Center—which helps modulate our emotional responses, allowing us to look at things in a more rational, balanced and less “me-centric” way—and what is referred to as the Me Center—the part of the brain that constantly refers back to ourselves, and our own perspectives and experiences. This means when something potentially frightening or upsetting happens, we can handle it with less anxiety and view it in a more rational, holistic way. At the same time, meditation helps break down the strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers of the brain. This strong connection means that, whenever we feel anxious about something, we are far more likely to assume it’s a problem with us. As those connections break down, it enables us to see upsetting sensations as passing, external problems, not as something wrong with us internally, and therefore not respond as strongly.

Finally, meditation enhances the connection between the helpful aspects of the Me Center, which help us process information related to people we see as dissimilar to us, and the bodily sensation center, which is involved in empathy. This explains why meditation increases our level of empathy—it helps us put ourselves into another person’s shoes, especially those we consider not like us. “In the end, this means that you are able to see yourself and everyone around you from a clearer perspective, while simultaneously being more present, compassionate and empathetic with people no matter the situation,” Gladding writes. “With time and practice, people do truly become calmer, have a greater capacity for empathy and find they tend to respond in a more balanced way to things, people or events in their lives.”