Tips and tricks for keeping your brain and cognitive function healthy.

Who are the world’s best learners?

The answer isn’t Harvard students or Mensa members. Rather, the world’s best learners are a surprising group: children.

Kids are great at learning because they use all kinds of instinctive techniques. But as we grow older, we lose these techniques because we’re told not to use them.

For example, if you had an unusual name growing up (like I did), your schoolmates probably made fun of you. It might have been considered mean, but it was also a way for them to cement your name into their memories.

This is also why one of the best ways to learn information is to visualize it in a funny way. For example, to remember someone named Mike, I recommend envisioning him jumping on the table and doing karaoke with a microphone.

But it’s not just learning! Yes, learning is one of the best ways to keep your brain sharp—but there are all kinds of other things you can do, and none of them involve sitting down and studying. Here are eight of my favorite fun ways to work your brain.

  1. Make plans with friends

Ever notice that elderly people who are social are far healthier and more cognitively present than their lonelier counterparts? That’s no coincidence. Interacting with other people is a complicated and uncertain endeavor that helps keep your brain sharp. But as we grow older, our social lives often tend to fall by the wayside. We don’t do what we don’t schedule—so set aside time for your friends on your calendar.

  1. Play games

There are several great games out there with multiple brain benefits. Crossword puzzles improve your vocabulary, strengthen your memory and force you to make connections between often disparate items. Sudoku helps you spot patterns, while trivia games work out your long-term recall and improve cognition. And it will come as no surprise that logic puzzles are great for your problem-solving skills.

  1. Eat chocolate

If you listen to my Kwik Brain podcast, you already know that chocolate can be amazing for your brain. Dark chocolate improves your focus and concentration, and it stimulates endorphins which improves your mood. The one caveat? Generally speaking, the darker the chocolate, the purer and better for your brain … so if you’re obsessed with white chocolate, you’re out of luck.

  1. Get it on

Hitting the sheets is great for lots of things, and your brain is no exception. Having sex improves your sleep quality, lifts your mood and decreases your stress level. It might even make you smarter! A 2010 study found that rats who had sex every day for two weeks had greater neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for long-term memory formation.

  1. Get crafty

There’s a reason that your grandmother probably knits. Doing crafts, especially ones that involve your hands, is great for your brain. It exercises several areas of your brain, reduces stress and age-related damage and can even induce a flow state. Plus, it increases your self-efficacy—whether you believe you can accomplish a particular task. In other words, crocheting a scarf can help you believe you can handle an important business meeting. Don’t want to increase the clutter in your house? Gardening can help, too.

  1. Rock out

We’ve all been there: An old song comes up on the car radio and you’re instantly transported to a different time in your life. Maybe it’s five years ago—or maybe even five decades. But the minute you hear this song, it takes you back. Why? Because music anchors learning and memory. That’s why you don’t remember anything from your 10th grade math class, but you still remember a song from that year.

So if you want to learn, do it while listening to a particular song—and when you need to remember that information, just think of that song again! For extra credit, listen to music that’s 60 beats per minute (such as classical Baroque music). Your resting heart rate is about 60BPM. So a song at this same tempo essentially harmonizes with your body, sending your brain into an alpha state of relaxed awareness—which is a great state to learn and memorize in.

  1. Plan a vacation

Did you know that the most satisfying part of a vacation is actually planning it—before you ever go on the trip? Planning a vacation will expose you to new ideas and environments and de-stress you by reminding you of other things going on in your life … even if you never actually go. Of course, for best results, you should go through with your planned vacation. Can’t take any days off? Consider a day trip on a Saturday!

  1. Learn something new

Learning is the best way to keep your brain sharp, but it doesn’t have to be boring! Read a good book on your favorite topic. Watch a documentary. Listen to a podcast (I’m partial to my own, the Kwik Brain podcast). Whatever your learning style and whatever you’re interested in, there is a fun way to learn that’s right for you.

Photo credit: YelenaYemchuk, Thinkstock