For many years, what we call “cognitive activities” were known as “hobbies” or “pastimes.” But today, neurologists and other behavioral therapists have proven conclusively that the relaxing diversions of years gone including sewing, model-building, painting/coloring and cash slots gaming actually function as important facilitators for our brains.
Researchers continue to examine how these leisure pursuits reduce the onset and the progression of brain cell loss. According to these studies, brain activity – including brain activity that involves leisure pursuits – develops neurological “plasticity” which stimulates new connections between nerve cells and builds a functional reserve that protects against future cell loss.
These cognitive activities protect the brain by establishing a “cognitive reserve”. The brain becomes more adaptable which compensates for changes that occur in the brain – sometimes as a result of brain-related injury or disease and other times as a result of aging.
This reserve starts developing in childhood and strengthens as the individual ages. Many studies have reinforced the theory that, if you continue to learn and develop new interests and skills, you will build and improve your brain’s cognitive reserve.
You don’t have to be doing calculus equations in order to derive these benefits. You can read, learn a new language, take a course, play an instrument, dance, play online games, paint, draw, sew and more.
Basically, you are engaging your brain in cognitive training for memory and thinking in which the cognitive functions of participants improved for the area being trained.
These improvements could still be seen 10 years after the end of the training. The researchers concluded that the greater the stimulation, the more the individual uses different neural circuit. This applies to any new intellectual stimulus for the brain.
Painting and Coloring
Almost any activity that challenges you intellectually, regardless of how relaxing it is, stimulates your brain. One of the most popular activities of this kind involves painting – even coloring books for adults or painting by numbers.
These hobbies, one thought of as “children’s hobbies” works for everyone. There are no difficult instructions to understand, no complicated procedures to follow and the end result is a completed work of art – very satisfying.
There are many painting/coloring kits on the market today for adults or you can have your own image printed which you can then paint or color on your own.
Painting and coloring have been extensively studied by researchers as productive cognitive activities. They were able to show that after 30-45 minutes of painting or coloring, the subjects’ brains secreted the hormone cortisol. Cortisol serves to help us relax and let our brains function without pressure.
The success of coloring/painting in secreting this hormone was not related in any way to the skill of the subject. It’s the process that’s important – stroking the brush on a canvas or coloring within the lines of a coloring book is relaxing and helps one clear their thoughts.
Regardless of whether you’re embroidering, needlepointing, reading, gardening or playing online games, your leisure activities stimulate connections between neurons in the brain which, in turn, fuels complex thoughts. As dendrites and axons move around they create and extend the neural pathways that encodes and communicates the new information through synapses.
The more plasticity there is between the synapses, the better the brain functions for a longer period of time. Enhancing that plasticity is the key to keeping the brain functioning well for the longest amount of time.
Engaging in relaxing and/or creative activities is highly recommended for overcoming sadness. As the brain focuses on more relaxing pursuits the individual can begin to move on from whatever is making him or her sad.
Such activities work best in combination with other stress-reducing techniques such as exercise, taking a walk, doing yoga or tai chi, writing in a journal, meditation, focusing on the positive.
Engaging in relaxing activities can also reduce risks to cognitive health caused by lifestyle, environment and genetic factors. These factors are believed to contribute to a decline in the ability to perform everyday tasks and in general thinking skills – mundane tasks including paying bills, driving, cooking and taking medicine.
Some factors are passed down from parent to child and those are not included in activities that can be mitigated by engaging in hobbies and other pleasurable pastimes.
But factors such as poor diet, use of medicines or controlled substances, brain injuries, smoking, drinking, use of alcohol and sleep problems which have negative effects on brain function can be addressed with the introduction of active hobbies to one’s life.
Relaxing pastimes on their own don’t provide the whole answer to the question of how to increase brain plasticity. As 2 years of COVID-19 pandemic isolation has taught us, it’s important to connect with other people through community programs and social activities, even online. These types of activities help you to feel more engaged with the world around you and less isolated.
While in-person socialization is still the best way to socialize, today’s social media options allow you to share your hobbies and pastimes with others who enjoy the same activities. Researchers are still studying whether social interaction can actually prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline but they have determined that there is a reduced risk of dementia and cognitive impairment when people maintain social connections.