Whether push-ups or dumbbell training - if you want to strengthen your muscles, you will quickly find effective exercises. If you want to train your brain, it's a bit more complicated.
"We don't really understand what happens in the brain when we train a specific brain function," says Professor Emrah Düzel, Director at the Institute for Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research. "Basically, we don't even know where exactly the processes are taking place."
What usually works, according to Emrah Düzel, is training a specific skill. For example, remembering phone numbers. How this affects other processes or parts of the brain is still largely unclear. Research has therefore set itself the goal of finding out what could train brain performance in general.
Even if science still sees many unanswered questions: There are training programs for the brain on the market - some with full-bodied promises. Neurologist Düzel sees them skeptically.
On the other hand, you can't go wrong by stimulating the brain, he believes. This can be useful after a stroke, if you have concentration problems after anesthesia, but also just in everyday life.
And it doesn't have to be complicated. 150 years ago, an American doctor gave a politician with memory problems an order: he should tell his wife every evening who he had met during the day. "The man did that for several years," says Düzel. This enabled him to remember better.
There is debate as to why this was so. "Either his memory had improved," says Emrah Düzel, "or he developed strategies over time as to how he could concentrate on certain content, and thus perceived and stored the information better." Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter as long as it is help.
"You can train short-term memory, but not long-term memory," says psychologist Peter Sturm. He is one of the founders of the Society for Brain Training and is responsible for the training and further education of trainers.
For him, however, brain training goes beyond pure memory exercises – such as remembering telephone numbers. "Modern brain training increases and stabilizes the basic functions of mental performance," he says. "That is the long-term effect, in the short term the training makes us faster and more attentive."
This has been proven by studies at least up to the age of 80 to 85. Dementia is not stopped with brain training, but the remaining structures in the brain are strengthened.
And how exactly does that work? “Everything that is new wakes up the brain,” says the psychologist. "You can do things that you do in everyday life just a little bit differently."
For example, try reading a text if you hold it upside down. Or run through a handful of lines to see how many times the letter 'n' follows an 'e'. You can also turn down the radio and try to piece together what was said.
"The brain doesn't like routine," says Peter Sturm. Exploring new paths is a challenge - also quite literally in a foreign city or on a walk in the woods.
And anyway, exercise seems to be essential for the brain. "The physical exertion associated with the novelty of something is an important stimulus," says neurologist Emrah Düzel.
But staying power is also important. "Just like with sports, there is no point in training for ten days in the gym for five hours a day," says Düzel. "The body needs recovery phases and the brain needs them too." However, little is known about the duration of processing and reorganization in the brain.
"Anyone who is curious doesn't really need any brain training," says Peter Sturm. "Brain training is a help if you are not challenged enough in everyday life." This can affect people who have to go to rehabilitation for a longer period of time, for example. Or older people who are no longer so mobile. The psychologist also trains employees in rehabilitation clinics and retirement homes.
Exercises with a large sheet of paper and a pen are good for older people. "Writing alone stimulates blood flow to the brain," says Peter Sturm.
An example: there are many letters on a piece of paper, they must be crossed out in alphabetical order. It starts with these simple exercises. After that, things can get a little more strenuous, for example when a simple sketch is drawn from memory. "Fun comes with practice," says Sturm. He also breaks a lance for playing together, which could be a simple memory game.
“Reciprocal contact also activates the brain,” he emphasizes. Ultimately, an interesting conversation is the best brain exercise. “You listen and react to what is said. That requires creativity, flexibility and memory,” says Peter Sturm. “And you can also do that with people who are severely restricted. Then you just ask questions that they can answer with yes or no.”
"Aha! Ten minutes of everyday knowledge" is WELT's knowledge podcast. Every Tuesday and Thursday we answer everyday questions from the field of science. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.