Though this is slowly changing, our country and culture still often place more emphasis on physical health than on “brain health.” We understand physical injury or sickness intuitively. They don’t require additional explanation or garner quizzical looks when they come up in the workplace or amongst friends.

But when it comes to mental or cognitive health and performance, many more stereotypes or confusions persist that inhibit understanding. This is why understanding the basic principles of brain function and health is so important.

This article will explore one significant tool in particular for keeping our brains healthy and well-functioning: learning.

“Cognitive Thinking” – Part of Your Brain’s Most Important Activity

Cognitive thinking has been defined this way: “Cognitive thinking is the mental process that humans use to think, read, learn, remember, reason, pay attention, and, ultimately, comprehend information and turn it into knowledge.” These cognitive functions also contribute to our ability to make resulting decisions, choices, and actions.

Cognitive processes are divided into primary and secondary functions. There are six commonly identified primary cognitive processes: thought, attention, language, learning, perception, and memory. These functions all contribute to five cognitive skills: critical thinking, quantitative skills, logic and reasoning, emotional intelligence, and focused attention.

Though this set of cognitive skills can vary by definition and categorization amongst different schools of discipline or thought, these general aptitudes are thought to be a predominant part of how our brains work and help us navigate the world.

How Learning Benefits Your Brain

The process of learning challenges the brain similarly to the way lifting weights or exercising challenges and develops the body. The process of learning new information or skills creates fresh pathways between the brain’s neurons. It keeps your brain more elastic and “in shape.”

Learning requires doing or thinking things that you never have before, requiring your brain to be resourceful and to synthesize, imagine, and design new ways of accomplishing what you are asking it to do. When you stretch and challenge your brain in this way, you teach it to be more malleable and adaptable to other challenges you face in normal life.

Because learning is a hugely beneficial way to help your brain expand its performance and capabilities (which in turn benefits your cognitive functions in other areas), incorporating even small habits for learning new things regularly can create significant benefits for your brain health over time.

Opportunities to Incorporate Learning Into Your Regular Routines

If you want to increase your brain performance, here are a few opportunities to do just that by adding learning into your habitual routines:

Learn in Your Free Time

What if, instead of playing candy crush or scrolling Instagram in spare moments or during your downtime, you installed a brain-training game or trivia app, did the crossword puzzle in the paper, or bought a sudoku book? These small additions can pay out huge brain-health dividends over time.

Learn at Work

Professional spaces are a great way to incorporate learning into your life. Many employees spend much of their careers unaware of the learning and upskilling opportunities that their employers offer them. In almost every workplace, some kind of opportunity for learning and development exists. If it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to craft one of your own.

Ask a manager if you can spend a little bit of time with them each quarter shadowing them, learning about a function of their job, or sitting in on parts of their responsibilities that you’re not normally a part of but would like to learn about. You may be surprised at how much this kind of effort can benefit you. It not only provides an outlet for learning but can also be a way of creating new career opportunities for yourself as well.

Learn by Going Back to School

Have you thought about getting a degree or an additional degree? Would it be an advantageous career move? If this is something you’ve been interested in or have the capacity to engage in, taking on a degree program is a robust way of reintroducing learning into your life.

Similarly, if a degree program is not what you’re looking for but a credential, certification, or independent training program might benefit you and your work or career, seeking out specific training courses or accreditations can also be a hugely beneficial and effective way of incorporating learning into your life.

Learn Through Trying New Things

Did you know that simply attempting something you’ve not done before is an effective way to make your brain learn? Try picking an activity from a list, surfing Groupon for something new and intriguing, taking a tour of a natural attraction or museum in your area, or joining a friend group on an excursion that you’ve not experienced before. Nervous? Don’t be.

Learning new things and trying new activities or skills won’t be comfortable, but it can always be fun if you allow it to be so. Put yourself just a little bit outside your comfort zone and you might be surprised at not only how much you learn but how enjoyable it can be!

Learn by Tackling a New Language

Language learning is often heralded as one of the best exercises you can take on for your brain health. It challenges multiple parts of your cognitive functioning at once. Learning a new language can dramatically increase your brain health and leave you with a very useful new skill as well.

Learn Through Joining Someone Else in Their Learning Journey

If you’re stumped for inspiration about something you want to learn or pursue, what if you joined someone else on their learning journey? This can be a fun way to incorporate community, friendship, and/or accountability into your process.

It can also be a way to support a friend, family member, or coworker in their process that also benefits you by involving you in their learning. Could you convince a friend to take a class with you? Help your child study for their next test. Ask your spouse to teach you something about their job. The possibilities are endless.

Incorporating learning into your regular habits can create significant and lasting benefits for your brain health.

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Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her wellness and education knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practising yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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