First and foremost, the act of meditation is a practice in attention. As your mind starts to wander, your cognitive control kicks in to bring your focus back to your breath. That means you have to keep monitoring your mind, something called metacognition. If your thoughts turn to an emotional topic, you get practice controlling your stress response. And keeping all this in your mind is a challenge for your working memory.
Lazar and others have found that by employing all these cognitive processes, meditation can actually rewire your brain, particularly the areas important for learning, memory, and emotion regulation. Think of meditation as a workout for your brain. Just like with physical exercise, the parts of your brain that you work the most will get bigger and stronger. Repeatedly focusing your attention, staying calm, and resisting the urge to let your mind wander will strengthen the regions responsible for those actions.
You don’t need to be a Zen master to experience the benefits of meditation. In one study, meditating 20 minutes a day for just five days lowered people’s feelings of stress and fatigue. Another study showed that two weeks of meditation training reduced students’ distracting thoughts, which helped improve their scores on the GRE. “The more you practice, the more you’re going to benefit,” Lazar says, “but even 10 minutes a day will be of some benefit.”
If you’re new to meditation, there are plenty of apps, like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer, to help you get started. These programs provide helpful tips on how to focus your attention and reminders during the guided meditation sessions to bring your awareness back to your breath.
Get your game face on
What you do outside work can also boost your brainpower. For the millions of people who use computer or video games to unwind, the type of game you play could make a difference when it comes to your cognition. And no, it’s not the latest word game that has the biggest benefit. Surprisingly, it’s first- or third-person shooter games.
Shawn Green, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, says these types of games give your brain a workout by forcing it to think and react quickly. “What makes them action games is that they have really severe time constraints,” he explains. “You have to take an input and very quickly make fast responses. Often things are changing or moving quickly, so you’re having to integrate information that’s rapidly changing.”
That time pressure places a higher demand on your cognitive systems, which makes your brain work harder and eventually get better at the tasks required in the game. Green and others have found improvements among gamers in everything from basic visual abilities to higher-level cognitive processes like multitasking.
However, it’s important not to use certain shortcuts that make the game easier but don’t exercise the brain. Researchers in Canada discovered that people who navigated an action game using spatial strategies like landmarks had increased volume in the hippocampus— the brain’s primary memory center. But if they used counting or memorization to find their way around, their hippocampi were smaller.
As with meditation (and physical exercise), the key is to challenge your brain in the ways you want it to be stronger. The brain is a powerful organ that learns and grows through adulthood by forging new connections between neurons. All you have to do is give it the right tools and a little bit of practice.