How To Train Your Brain: Top 6 Brain Exercises For Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinkers are those types of people that somehow always seem to know how to deal with a problem in the best way possible. They have a whole range of problem-solving strategies they can select from, depending on what the situation at hand calls for. They have the capacity to dynamically engage in more than one activity at a time, and they have the ability both to absorb new data and reorganize what they already know depending on the demands or additional information they receive. They can think up novel ways to solve a particular problem or reach a certain outcome, and can foresee a range of consequences for varying courses of action.

All these skills and the capacity for fluid intelligence and creativity that they possess help them be better adapted and successful whether in academic or career settings. But not only that—flexible thinkers are also better adapted in the social setting, as they tend to possess a well-developed sense of humor and the ability to adjust and relate to varying types of people and social situations.

Maybe you can identify some people in your life who radiate these characteristics. Or more likely, you’re probably looking to becoming one of these people yourself. With the success, achievements, and other benefits that flexible thinkers gain out of their capacity to discover and implement more than one way of solving a problem or doing something, who wouldn’t want to become more mentally agile and flexible in their thinking too?

While some people may seem to have the aptitude for and innate ability of being mentally flexible, the good news is that this capacity is not limited to those people. Recent research by neuroscientists has revealed the brain’s property of neuroplasticity, or its ability to rewire and physically adapt itself to new ways of thinking and dealing with challenging activities. Groundbreaking research on neuroplasiticity has revolutionized the way patients with brain trauma, stroke and mild cognitive impairment are being managed and rehabilitated.

But you don’t need to have suffered a traumatic car accident to be able to utilize the applications of neuroplasticity research. You too can use brain training exercises developed by neuroscientists to help you achieve a more agile and flexible way of thinking, maximize your full potential in all areas of life, and strengthen your defenses against cognitive decline brought about by aging.

To start you off on the road towards more flexible thinking and a life lived to the fullest, here are 6 brain exercises you can start doing now to foster mental agility:

1. Learn something new.

Participating in new activities will stimulate your prefrontal cortex and other parts of your brain involved in mastering novel cognitive challenges. Engage in that new hobby of painting or crocheting, learn how to cook a new recipe or play a musical instrument, take dancing classes, or finally commit to learning that new language you’ve been hoping to maser. Encountering new challenges can spark your brain to create new neural pathways to process the new information or skill you’re trying to learn. While familiar tasks only strengthen the existing pathways you use over and over again to accomplish habitual activities, learning a novel activity encourages your brain to form new ones or rewire its existing circuitry in order to accommodate the demands placed upon it.

2. Introduce variety in your life.

Aside from fostering novelty by learning something new, you can also improve your mental flexibility through variation of the usual activities you’re currently involved in. Engaging in variety, such as changing the context of habitual tasks, will force your brain to coordinate multiple regions and employ multiple functions, encouraging the improvement of mental agility. Take a break from the daily grind by walking around the block for a few minutes each day, or take a vacation for a total refreshment of your environmental perspective. Try taking a new route on your way to work or as you make your way back home. Rearrange your office desk to remap your brain and encourage it to remember new ways of accomplishing your usual daily tasks.

3. Do your routine activities using your non-dominant hand.

The term neurobics pertain to such mental exercises aimed to improve brain performance and functioning, a concept popularized by neurobiologist Dr. Lawrence Katz together with Manning Rubin. Included in the list of neurobics they have developed is the activity of using your non-dominant hand to complete your day’s routine activities. For instance, say you are right-handed. Whenever you dial the phone, brush your teeth, or style your hair, use your left hand instead. The idea is to strengthen the brain pathways you don’t usually use, and stimulate the production of such chemicals in your brain that are involved in the development of new brain cells and dendrites. Activities as simple as changing the hand you use to shave every morning from your dominant to your non-dominant hand are expected to engage the parts of your brain not used to doing such tasks, reviving underused neural pathways and improving capacity for flexible thinking.

4. Challenge yourself in areas which are not your strengths.

Have you always been good in math and find dealing with numbers a whole lot easier than grappling with words? If so, it’s time to pick up that book of classic literature and challenge yourself with reading and understanding it within a reasonable period of time. Establish a specific and time-bound goal for activities such as this, so you know when you’ve succeeded in your aims. Each person has a unique set of aptitudes or natural capacity for a certain area and a set of weaknesses as well. Challenging yourself to improve on your weaker areas, instead of avoiding them at all costs, will engage your brain in a whole new level of difficulty and encourage you to exhaust your capacity for problem-solving—making you a more resourceful, creative, and flexible thinker.

5. Use all of your five senses more fully and in unexpected ways.

Aside from doing routine activities in a novel or non-routine method, another brain training exercise Dr. Katz suggested is maximizing the use of all of your five senses. A large portion of your brain is dedicated to processing sensory input, so integrating the use of your senses more fully and in creative ways can also help strengthen neural connections and assist your brain to become better at flexible thinking. You can involve more of your senses in novel ways by blunting the sense you typically use for doing a habitual task.

For instance, close your eyes as you eat and try to identify the ingredients or dish you’re eating by using only your senses of taste and smell. Or upon coming home from work, make your way through your home with your eyes closed, allowing only your sense of touch to guide you in the right direction as you feel your way through. You can also try to use two or more senses simultaneously in novel ways, such as focusing on smelling a scent while listening to a particular genre of music.

6. Spend a certain amount of time each day engaging in focused thought.

With both meaningful information and non-meaningful distractions bombarding you from all sources each day, engaging your full attention on a single thing is now harder than ever. Not many people can stand even just 30 minutes of uninterrupted focus on one topic, but this capacity for control and direction of thoughts is one hallmark of a flexible thinker. Flexible thinking not only involves being able to adapt to new ways of thinking, but also having enough control to direct your perception and focus according to what is most appropriate for the situation.

You can find time to practice engaging in focused thought during your break at work. Go outside and choose a concrete object to observe—a tree, a flower, the opposite building. Note its colors, and try to put a name to the shades of colors it has. Think of metaphors you can associate with that object. This will help you not only build better focus, but encourage creative thinking as well. Start engaging in this exercise for 5 minutes each day, and once you’ve developed more control over your thoughts, gradually work up to 30 minutes every day.

Gone are the days when the prevailing idea about the brain and mental processes was “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” With recent developments in neuroscience and a better understanding of the concept of neuroplasticity, you are now given more strategies to improve your brain performance, defend yourself against cognitive decline, and achieve flexible thinking. Are you ready to be a better problem-solver and a more productive and adapted individual? If so, practice the 6 brain exercises outlined above and you’ll be on your track not only towards a more flexible mental capacity, but also towards the achievement of your life goals.

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