Intellectually engaging activities such as reading, crossword puzzles and the like are good for the brain. They both help maintain brain functions and contribute to building brain reserve, making the brain more resistant to pathology. A recent study shows that stimulating activities combined with cognitive training may also enhance openness in older adults, the ability to embrace new ideas and challenges.
What is openness?
Personality psychologists have recognized 5 major personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness. Openness is defined as being flexible and creative, and embracing new ideas and challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits. Only openness is thought to be related to one’s cognitive abilities.
The study involved 183 participants (mean age was 72.9 years old). Half of the participants were trained for 16 weeks. In a class-based setting they performed increasingly difficult pattern-recognition and problem-solving tasks that stimulated inductive reasoning. In addition, they were provided with puzzles (Sudoku and crossword puzzles) that they could perform at home. Participants underwent personality trait and inductive reasoning tests before, during, and after the study.
Compared to non-trained controls, trained participants had better inductive reasoning scores at the end of the study, showing that the cognitive training was effective. Most interesting, they also experienced significant increases in openness.
This is an important result for two reasons. First, openness is known to decrease with age so it is good to know that such trend can be reversed. Second, it gives hope that once someone starts an intellectually stimulating activity, a beneficial cycle will start: brain stimulation will both optimize cognitive functions and increase openness, this will in turn increase the chances that the person will keep up with the activity itself and perhaps try new ones, which will help optimize brain functions even more, etc.
One caution note: the study involved both home-based stimulating activities (crossword puzzles and sudokus) and research-based cognitive training (tasks specifically designed to enhance reasoning). It is thus not clear what role was played by the crosswords and sudokus. As always, variety is key in terms of brain stimulation. To optimize brain functions in general, the best solution is to engage in a variety of challenging tasks so that the various abilities supported by the brain are stimulated and exercised.
Jackson, J. J., Hill, P. L., Payne, B. R., Roberts, B. W., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2012, Jan 16). Can an old dog learn (and want to experience) new tricks? Cognitive training increases openness to experience in older adults. Psychology and Aging, Advance online pub.