10 Ways to Train Your Brain for Free or Cheap

by ToriDeaux on January 26, 2009

Ok, so I’ve convinced you of the value of brain-training… but you just don’t think you can afford the software in this rough economy. Rubix Cube for the Brain! Image by MeHere on StockXchngThat’s ok, there really are plenty of ways to keep your brain exercised on the cheap. 

First, a few points to remember for cognitive workouts: 


  1. It’s supposed to be hard.  One of the risks of doing this on your own is that you’ll slack off, and go for the easy stuff.   Rule of thumb… if it seems to comes too easily, pick something else.
  2. Step it up.   To be really effective, the difficulty needs to increase as you go along.  Every so often, step up the difficulty beyond what you think you can do.  Then step back down, and note the improvement. It makes a noticable difference.
  3. Variety is  key. Choose exercises that work a variety of different mental functions, or choose a variety of exercises at once.   Don’t just pick one new hobby or exercise, vary them. Think of it as cross-training for the brain.
  4. Keep track of your efforts. I know, I know.. it’s a pain. But it provides motivation, allows you to hone in on the areas you need the most work in, and can help you spot any declines as they happen.

Got the Idea? Then here are a Few Options to Consider:

 Juggle for your Brain!  Image by Penywise on Stock.XchngJuggling:  There have been legitimate science studies that demonstrate learning to juggle can cause measurable changes in the brain.  Juggling involves works out a variety of cognitive functions,  including hand eye co-ordination, spatial relations, and balances use of both sides of the body (and therefore both sides of the brain.) Free Beginners guidance is available on the web, and there’s no cost  barrier: you can ball up a few socks and start tossing them around for free. (be sure and check out You Tube for even more tutorials)

 Suduko/Crosswords:  Both games have been popularly touted as brain builders, and for good reason.   But you still shouldn’t rely on just one type of puzzle/exercise for brain fitness.. remember that variety thing?  Still, these classic games definitely work out the brain (even if it’s not a complete workout) and a combination of both math and word games  would be better than either alone.  Plenty of both types of puzzles are available on the web, and most offer a variety of difficulties.  For an even more challenging task, try building your own puzzles – but no cheating and using a generator!

Paper Crane from a £ 10 note (which I recolored, because I'm annoying like that) Original crane and photo by djeyewater on Stock.XchngOrigami:   So far as I know, scientists haven’t picked up on the brain potential of Japanese paper folding.. but having done this since I was a child? Trust me… thinking in terms of "frog bases" and "mountain folds" WILL work out your brain in unique ways, and reading the diagrams can be very challenging.  But lots of Instructions are available on the web (be sure and check YouTube, as well) and you can start out folding up some  of that excess junk mail that seems to haunt our mailboxes these days. 

Meditation:  No, I don’t mean just zoning out, (although that has its benefits, too)  and not some new age feel good contemplation, either.  I’m talking about a formal, disciplined practice of the sort done by Buddhists, and also happens to be suitable for those in any religion, or none.  Studies seem to show that this sort of meditation actually, really, changes the brain.  WildMind.org is a great resource with a huge free area. 

Learn a New Language:  And don’t just consider the obvious and useful Spanish.  Consider studying the language of your ancestors, an Indigenous language like Mingo, or even a simple programming language, like HTML.    Immerse yourself not only in the words, but the thoughts and history behind the words – learn to *think* like a native speaker (or programmer!).   There are free online  sources for almost any language you can imagine.

Learn to Dance:  Sure, just moving to the music is fun.  But more formal dance styles train your mind and body in a whole different way, improving balance, coordination. It’s good physical AND mental exercise, and there are plenty of resources for almost any style on YouTube, plus free/cheap download videos available through Netflix, Amazon, and no doubt through iTunes (though I Dance for the Brain!  Image by katagaci on Stock.Xchnghaven’t checked there).

Even if you’re physically limited (or just incredibly out of shape/uncoordinated) you can get some benefit from learn-to-dance videos – studies have shown that just watching and imagining yourself doing the moves stimulates the nerves and muscles imperceptibly and improves performance when the actual moves are tried.

Take a Music Appreciation Class: While the "Mozart Effect" has been over-hyped and mischaracterized by the media, there is some validity to the idea that music can stimulate the brain, especially when you listen to it with an understanding of what to listen to – separating out the different instruments, movements, rhythms and styles.  Check out  Sound Reasoning, a free online music appreciation course developed by Rice University

Learn to Play a Musical Instrument:  Take it a step beyond "listening" and learn to create your own music.  Alternatively, you might try your hand at using a free program like Audacity (which is excellent, by the way) to mix, layer and mash existing music clips. Either way, you’ll stimulate your mind in a whole different way.

Apply the Same Approach to Wine, or Art…  Take an art appreciation course or wine tasting class; in addition to online versions they’re often available for free (or nearly so) through community adult education programs.  Either one will educate and stimulate your senses of sight, taste and smell senses with a deeper awareness , and thhen you can ramp it up further by learning to brew your own wine or beer, and then draw or paint your finished product ;)

Cultivate Challenging Hobbies: Scale model making, needlework, gardening,  astronomy, journaling, golf, scrap booking, bird watching, blogging..   name a hobby, and it can probably help to stimulate your brain if you throw yourself into it with a will to learn.  The key is to find something you enjoy, something that challenges you to learn more than just minimum required skills, uses a variety of mental functions and encourages you to be socially engaged with others.  Most of those I’ve listed can be started with little or no investment, but I make no promises about the potential long term expense!

And Finally…

If the above options  seem to require too much self motivation to suit you…  you can always fall back on freeware and demo versions of brain-training programs.    I’ll be collecting a list of them in another post – but they’re really just a stop gap measure.  But at the least, perhaps the demos will convince you that the future health of your mind and brain is worth an investment of time, effort and money.

Keep in mind that none of these exercises alone will provide "complete brain fitness" — but then again, official brain training software alone won’t do that, either . Additionally, there’s no guarantee that one type of workout provides more benefits than another.     Most likely, it’s all a very individual thing.  Bottom line, cognitive workouts are just one part of brain fitness; brain exercises wont compensate for a poor diet, lack of exercise, social isolation, or sleep deprivation. 

Still, keeping mentally active and challenged in a variety of ways *is* important, and any of the ideas listed above are a good start towards that goal.

So what do you think?  Have any of your own ideas for challenging/creative mindtweaks on the cheap? 

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 GaryD 01.27.09 at 12:09 am

Great list of activities Tori !! You’ve listed a few things I hadn’t thought of before.. like Origami. Your 4 key points were well said as well. Thanks for the post.

2 robert 01.27.09 at 10:50 am

Yeah – a great list of things to do. I am interested to read the bit about juggling as yesterday I wore my watch on my right wrist for the first time ever. No immediate effects but then while driving, things optical started to get wierd. I could sense the brain going through adjustments to compensate the change. It was wierd. After a few miles I put the watch back onto my left wrist and bingo – the feeling of an oncoming migraine/headache dissipated immediately.

Strange but very interesting.

3 Joyce 02.12.09 at 4:39 am

volunteering–>make you feel good–>good for your brain

4 Jackie 02.14.09 at 2:21 am

This is all very important. I have proven, to myself, that my brain went mushy, like peas, since I have not been writing. As well as my speech patterns have gotten rotten…lol

Looking forward to catching up on the archives ;)

5 Tori Deaux 02.16.09 at 9:59 pm

@Joyce Great suggestion, Joyce… volunteer work can also include physical or social activities, also good for the brain : ) I think its interesting that some of us are motivated to do things for brain health that we ought to be doing anyway!

@Jackie Yay Jackie! It’s Jackie.. ok, a slightly mushy Jackie, but still! Welcome back, we’ve missed you : )

6 Jackie 02.17.09 at 2:31 am

Thank you for the warm welcome back. I’ve missed you all as well. : )

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9 Jean-Philippe de Lasalle 03.19.09 at 4:20 am

The brain derives it’s powers from the fact that most things and events in life can be sorted and categorized to some extent. During novel experiences, the mind creates internal models of those things with which it comes in contact with. Such models are more or less generalizable to a variety of things, and thus can further the understanding of a category of objects/phenomena. One problem with this scheme is that this same ability to predict can fool us into seeing patterns where none exist or to find it difficult to tolerate unpredictability. Unpredictabilty is practically synonymous with randomness, which leads me to posit that most people will find it quite difficult to respond to a random set of stimuli for any length of time. Seeing patterns where none exist is the hallmark of delusional thinking. Could it be that delusory states can be diagnosed and improved by testing AND training the brain to perceive randomness for what it truly is: the abscence of pattern? As an example, imagine a video game who’s goal is to respond as quickly respond to a directional arrow presented on the screen by pressing the corresponding arrow key on the keyboard. By so doing, the program would instantaneously present a new randomly chosen directional arrow (e.g. up, down, left, or right), to which the player would then respond as quickly as possible. The goal of the game would be to respond as quickly as possible and do so for as many trials as one can tolerate. Hmm :) hope this helps.

10 Andre "Brain Fitness Coach" Auerbach 04.27.10 at 1:24 am

This is, frankly, one of the most comprehensive article written on the subject (and I’ve read a lot). Most people write about brain exercises but few know more than the games that are available.

Fact is, there are numerous powerful brain exercises that are free and this article listssome of the best. And I love it that your first point is that it’s meant to be difficult. Whenever I read about how “brain games” are fun, I immediately know it’s not working.
Andre “Brain Fitness Coach” Auerbach’s last post: Brain Killing Food: What You Eat Can Deteriorate Brain Function