Going back to my childhood, I was pretty academic in school. I was an avid reader, had a keen interest in music and dreamt of becoming a doctor. Then like many other teenagers, when puberty struck and I began high school, I became unmotivated with my studies. I lost interest in school work and preferred to hang out with my friends instead. I found the content of my lessons uninspiring and despite their best efforts, very few teachers could actually encourage me to produce the work I was capable of. Despite having an IQ of 150, I never reached my full potential in school. My formal education ended with the completion of my GCSE’s. I did fairly well in the exams but my grades suffered as a result of much of my coursework being missing or incomplete. Perhaps I would have fared better under the old ‘O Level’ system which relied on exam results only. I have met a number of successful people who performed badly in their GCSE’s so perhaps it is wise to remember that they are a reflection of the work ethic of a sixteen year old child, not the skills, knowledge, business acumen and capacity for learning of an adult.
It has been several years now since leaving school and ironically, I have more of a thirst for learning now than what I ever did as a child. I once heard a quote which has always stayed with me, ‘formal education isn’t what makes you smart, if you’re smart you educate yourself’. And I guess that is what I have been trying to do for the past few years, not for the sake of making up for the shortcomings in my formal education, but learning just for the pleasure of learning something new or mastering a new skill. Your brain is an organ that needs to be exercised. Do so by reading, writing, completing puzzles, learning new skills… Anything that engages your brain and requires you to think. Many people now realise the benefits of regularly doing activities which stimulate and challenge your brain. In recent years, brain training games have become popular and scientists believe that staying mentally active could maybe help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
I am keeping my brain active at the moment by studying astronomy. It is a complex but fascinating subject which is certainly making me think! I have met some that think it is only worth learning things that will make you money. But there is nothing wrong with learning for the sake of learning. In my opinion, it is one of life’s greatest gifts.
Here are some ideas for getting your brain working –
Online educational resources – The internet has a vast amount of websites and resources for learning. A lot of universities have free courses on their websites including top universities such as Harvard, Yale and Berkeley. Wikiversity is a Wikimedia project which contains lots of learning resources at all levels of education. There are some superb videos for learning on YouTube, check out #education. The BBC website also has an excellent education section (we have to make use of our licence fee somehow). There are so many other great websites – this link will take you to an article written by Marc Chernoff where he has listed some of the best!
Libraries – Visit your local library and borrow books on subjects that interest you or perhaps subjects which you have no prior knowledge of. Libraries contain books on every subject from architecture to zoology.
Hobbies – Take up a new hobby or perhaps take up one that you dropped years ago. Learn to draw or paint, cook or bake, learn a craft such as knitting or even learn to fly… Anything that sparks your interest and creativity.
Art galleries – I always find that visiting an art gallery provides a lot of intellectual stimulation, even if it is just because you find yourself staring at a piece of art and thinking, ‘how on earth did that get to be exhibited?!’
Museums – Visit local museums or travel further afield to places such as London which has some world class museums including the Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and Royal Observatory Greenwich.
Start your own business – This will provide you with lots to think about and to do!
Learn a strategy game – My husband recently taught me to play chess, an excellent way to get you thinking and an enjoyable way to pass the time rather than spending an evening just watching TV.
Write – Poetry, a short story, that novel you have been meaning to write for years or like me, that blog you have always been meaning to start.
Get outdoors – Whether it’s a walk in the local or park or a cross country hike, gentle exercise and getting closer to nature always leaves you feeling good and mentally stimulated.
Current affairs – Keep up to date with what is happening in the world, read newspapers, watch the news, maintain an interest in politics and debate with those around you.
Learn a musical instrument – Musical instruments are more affordable than ever and with a whole host of free teaching resources available online, it has never been easier to learn an instrument. I play double bass and if you happen to also play it, check out Jeff’s excellent videos at
Watch a play or film – When well written, these can provide plenty of mental stimulation. The same goes for listening to music.
Make something – Whether it’s a beautiful cake, a scale model or a patchwork quilt, your brain will be kept busy as well as your hands.
Learn a new language – As with many other subjects, there are so many free resources on the web for learning a language now, whether you want to master the basics or become a fluent speaker. French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Latin… The choice is endless.
Read – As much as you can. Fiction, non-fiction, classic works of literature… Books make the world a much better place.
Personal development – Some people dismiss self help and personal development as mumbo jumbo but I disagree. Learning to increase your confidence, overcome depression about your past and anxiety about your future are crucial skills to learn. Never underestimate the importance of being able to master your emotional state, mindfulness, positive self talk and learning to see and think ‘differently’.
Observe the world around you – It’s very easy to go through life on autopilot. Many of us have the same daily routine and switch off to what is actually going on around us. The next time you are on your daily commute or taking a walk around your home town, really look at what is around you. You will be surprised at what you may find that you have never noticed before. Historic architecture, interesting plants, places of natural beauty… Even just going outside on a clear, dark night and observing the night sky offers a feast for the senses.
Puzzles – Crosswords, Sudoku, brain training games – these all provide great exercise for your brain. Try learning to complete a Rubik’s cube, it is immensely satisfying once you learn and a great party trick!
Mental arithmetic – Next time you reach for your calculator – don’t. Use your brain instead. The confusion on the face of shop assistants when you ask them ‘do you want the 10?’ shows that we have become incredibly reliant on technology to do our maths for us. Whether it’s basic mental arithmetic when out shopping or tackling your own accounts, practice maths at every opportunity to keep your brain sharp.
Take a class – Flower arranging, art, cooking, pottery… There are an abundance of inexpensive (sometimes free) classes out there to take. Check out your local classifieds to find out what’s on near you.
Join a club – From amateur dramatics, to gardening, to the WI, again there are lots of choices in your local area if you choose to look.
Travel – New sights, new smells, different languages, new cultures… They all provide a feast for the senses and for your brain. Travel offers are wealth of opportunity to learn, perhaps more so than any other pastime in my opinion.
Yoga – I have included yoga as it is an activity that is about the mind as well as the body. A wonderfully relaxing form of exercise, as well as increasing your flexibility and suppleness, yoga will also leave your mind feeling clear and refreshed. If you prefer more rigorous exercise, remember that all forms of physical activity help your body to release endorphins leaving you feeling good and mentally alert.
Until next time, keep working that grey matter x