Are you concerned about your intellectual wellness? If so, you’ve probably been looking for ways to improve your cognitive abilities, express your creativity, increase your knowledge of several subjects, expand your skillset, participate in community activities, and more.
What is intellectual wellness?
Intellectual wellness is a part of overall wellness defined as “the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” (1)
Thus, intellectual wellness involves participating in activities that stimulate your mind and expands cognitive abilities, i.e., problem-solving, learning, creativity, etc. It includes actively pursuing different ideas, exposing yourself to new ideas, and learning more about yourself and your intellectual capacity.
Intellectual wellness is essential because it helps you achieve a more balanced life.
6 great ways to improve your intellectual wellness
There are many ways to increase intellectual wellness, and it doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Studies in neuroplasticity show that the brain never stops growing and changing and that it makes new neurons throughout life. It also rewires itself each time we learn a new subject or task.
But to take advantage of brain plasticity, you need to stimulate or exercise it with new intellectual challenges. In other words, you must use your brain, or you’ll lose intellectual capacity.
Read For business and pleasure
Reading is a great way to expand your intellect. Of course, reading in the classroom and instructor lectures is essential to learning various subjects and acing exams, but reading for fun is important, too. Research suggests that it boosts multiple parts of the brain, and these effects vary depending on the type of reading you’re doing.
For example, a 2012 study by Standford researchers found that participants who paid close attention while reading excerpts from a Jane Austen novel experienced a dramatic increase in blood flow in some areas of the brain. But what was truly surprising is that this blood flow went beyond the parts of the brain that govern “executive function,” like those generally associated with reading or concentrating on other tasks. (2)
This discovery led researchers to theorize that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Reading for pleasure also increases blood flow to different brain regions than reading for school or business. (3)
As reading may stimulate your intellect in varied and exciting ways, this research suggests that it’s essential to read a variety of material for both business and pleasure.
Regularly perform aerobic exercises
We all know that exercise is good for your body and health, but did you know it can make you smarter? It’s true.
Multiple research studies suggest that exercise promotes brain health, probably because it oxygenizes the entire body, including the brain. However, these studies primarily focused on sustained activities like power walking for 30 minutes. Would short but intense exercise periods offer the same brain-boosting benefits, though?
Recent research at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, put that question to the test. Researchers took previously sedentary mice and had them voluntarily run a few kilometers on wheels. (4)
“Short bursts of exercise directly boosts the function of a gene that increases connections between neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory.” (5)
In other words, the study showed that a short but intense burst of exercise is enough to induce synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus, making it easier to learn and remember new things. Therefore, one of the best exercises to improve your intellectual wellness is aerobics-related, such as jogging or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that you can do for 15-20 minutes.
Meditation has been around for more than 5,000 years. It is a practice designed to train attention and awareness, thus calming the mind and the body.
In ancient times, meditation was primarily considered a spiritual practice and thus the province of priests, monks, and other religious/spiritual figures. Now it is widely used as a secular practice among the general population, who often use it for relaxation and stress reduction.
Studies show that meditation is especially beneficial for the brain. As little as four weeks of regular meditation have been shown to promote positive structural and functional changes in the brain. (6)
This leads to better focus and concentration, less stress, and so much more!
There are several forms of meditation, but most of them involve focusing attention on the breath or other objects while letting thoughts come and go nonjudgmentally without attaching to any of them.
It’s as simple as that but not easy to do. In the beginning, you’ll find yourself fighting your thoughts. The secret is NOT to fight them. Instead, simply notice each thought as it comes and then gently bring your attention back to your breath or another object.
Do crossword and sodoku puzzles
Doing crossword puzzles, sudoku puzzles, and other mentally challenging activities is one of the most accessible and enjoyable ways to improve intellectual health. It makes you search your memory banks to find an answer to the puzzle, especially if you’re stumped for an answer.
Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London in Britain found an association between frequent crossword or Sudoku use and better brain function. Specifically, they found that those who regularly did word or number puzzles had brains up to 10 years younger than their age, and the more often they did puzzles, the better their brain function! (7)
Though more research is needed, this suggests that regular word and number puzzle usage may be an enjoyable way to improve cognitive function and keep your brain younger.
Learn a foreign language
Speaking two languages fluidly (bilingualism) can also boost cognitive function and thus increase your intellectual wellness.
A large body of research suggests that bilingualism promotes structural changes in the brain. For example, proficiency in a second language is associated with an increased density of gray matter in the brain’s left inferior parietal cortex region, (8) an area that may help balance the two languages. Similarly, research shows a change in white matter density in the brains of bilingual children (9) and older adults. (10)
In addition, bilingualism is associated with functional changes in the brain. For example, “researchers have shown that the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain, thanks to its developed ability to inhibit one language while using another.” (11)
And it doesn’t matter how old you are. It seems that bilingualism involves constantly reorganizing and strengthening neural networks that enhance executive function, keeping the brain young. Clinical research studies show that bilingualism may slow cognitive decline in older adults and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to five years! (12)
Learning a foreign language is more convenient than ever these days due to the wealth of reputable online and software programs.
Play a musical instrument
Emerging research suggests that playing a musical instrument can support brain function. Why? According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, playing a musical instrument alters brain waves that improve a person’s listening and hearing skills — two crucial skills needed for healthy cognition — for a short time after the session ends. Even more impressive, just a single session of playing an instrument is sufficient to alter brain waves. (13) It’s worth noting that simply listening to music did not appear to alter brain waves. Instead, the listener must participate in music-making.
In addition, playing a musical instrument engages the entire brain, as your left hand is typically doing something different from your right one. Two different sides of the brain control these. Playing an instrument also engages the brain’s executive functions, including memory, attention, and cognitive flexibility.
Playing a musical instrument supports brain health at all ages, but studies suggest it may be especially beneficial for older adults.
In a meta-analysis of three studies regarding the relationship between instrument playing and cognitive impairment/dementia development, researchers found a 59% reduction in the risk of developing dementia. The researchers concluded:
“The three identified studies that investigated the specific relationship of musical instrument playing and subsequent incidence of cognitive impairment and dementia all reported a large protective association.” (14)
More research is needed to validate these results, but if true, can you think of a more enjoyable way to delay or prevent cognitive decline than playing an instrument?
1- Global Wellness Institute. What is Wellness? Accessed Sep 17, 2021. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/what-is-wellness/
2- Goldman C. This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Stanford Report. Sep 7, 2012. Accessed Sep 17, 2021. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html
3- Goldman C. This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Stanford Report. Sep 7, 2012. Accessed Sep 17, 2021. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html
4- Chatzi C, Zhang Y, Hendricks WD, Chen Y, Schnell E, Goodman RH, Westbrook GL. Exercise-induced enhancement of synaptic function triggered by the inverse BAR protein, Mtss1L. eLife 2019;8:e45920 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.45920.
5- Robinson E. Study reveals a short bout of exercise enhances brain function. OHSU. Jul 2, 2019. Accessed Sep 17, 2021. https://news.ohsu.edu/2019/07/02/study-reveals-a-short-bout-of-exercise-enhances-brain-function
6- Tang YY, Lu Q, Fan M, Yang Y, Posner MI. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109(26):10570-10574. doi:10.1073/pnas.1207817109
7- Wesnes K, Brooker H, Corbett A, McCambridge L, Ballard C. The Relationship Between the Frequency of Word Puzzle Use and Cognitive Function in a Large Sample of Adults Aged 50 to 96 Years. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 13. P869-P870. 10.1016/j.jalz.2017.06.1240. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320530922_THE_RELATIONSHIP_BETWEEN_THE_FREQUENCY_OF_WORD_PUZZLE_USE_AND_COGNITIVE_FUNCTION_IN_A_LARGE_SAMPLE_OF_ADULTS_AGED_50_TO_96_YEARS
8- Mechelli A, Crinion JT, Noppeney U, O’Doherty J, Ashburner J, Frackowiak RS, Price CJ. Neurolinguistics: structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature. 2004 Oct 14;431(7010):757. doi: 10.1038/431757a. PMID: 15483594.
9- Mohades SG, Struys E, Van Schuerbeek P, Mondt K, Van De Craen P, Luypaert R. DTI reveals structural differences in white matter tracts between bilingual and monolingual children. Brain Res. 2012 Jan 30;1435:72-80. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.12.005. Epub 2011 Dec 9. PMID: 22197702.
10- Luk G, Bialystok E, Craik FI, Grady CL. Lifelong bilingualism maintains white matter integrity in older adults. J Neurosci. 2011 Nov 16;31(46):16808-13. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4563-11.2011. PMID: 22090506; PMCID: PMC3259110.
11- Marian V, Shook A. The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. Cerebrum. 2012 Sep;2012:13. Epub 2012 Oct 31. PMID: 23447799; PMCID: PMC3583091.
12- Morris Freedman, Suvarna Alladi, Howard Chertkow, Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I. M. Craik, Natalie A. Phillips, Vasanta Duggirala, Surampudi Bapi Raju, Thomas H. Bak, “Delaying Onset of Dementia: Are Two Languages Enough?”, Behavioural Neurology, vol. 2014, Article ID 808137, 8 pages, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/808137
13- Ross B, Barat M, Fujioka T. Sound-Making Actions Lead to Immediate Plastic Changes of Neuromagnetic Evoked Responses and Induced β-Band Oscillations during Perception. Journal of Neuroscience 14 June 2017, 37 (24) 5948-5959; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3613-16.2017
14- Walsh S, Causer R, Brayne C. Does playing a musical instrument reduce the incidence of cognitive impairment and dementia? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Aging Ment Health. 2021 Apr;25(4):593-601. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2019.1699019. Epub 2019 Dec 9. PMID: 31814445.