9 Surprising and Intriguing Brain Exercises.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 9 mental exercises — zany but productive.

Dorothea Brande was an American writer and editor, well known for her books Wake Up and Live and Becoming a Writer (a useful resource for writers, by the way).

In 1936, in Wake Up and Live, Brande suggests several mental exercises to make your mind keener and more flexible. These exercises are meant to pull you out of your usual habits, give your a different perspective, and put you in situations that will demand resourcefulness and creative problem-solving. Brande argues that only by testing and stretching yourself can you develop mental strength. Here are some of her suggestions:

Even apart from the goals of creativity and mental flexibility, Brande’s exercises make sense from a happiness perspective. One thing is clear: novelty and challenge bring happiness. People who stray from their routines, try new things, explore, and experiment tend to be happier than those who don’t. Of course, as Brande herself points out, novelty and challenge can also bring frustration, anxiety, confusion, and annoyance along the way; it’s the process of facing those challenges that brings the “atmosphere of growth” so important to happiness. (It’s the First Splendid Truth: to be happy, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.)

1. Spend an hour each day without saying anything except in answer to direct questions, in the midst of the usual group, without creating the impression that you’re sulking or ill. Be as ordinary as possible. But do not volunteer remarks or try to draw out information.

2. Think for 30 minutes a day about one subject exclusively. Start with five minutes.

3. Talk for 15 minutes a day without using I, me, my, mine.

4. Pause on the threshold of any crowded room and size it up.

5. Keep a new acquaintance talking about himself or herself without allowing him to become conscious of it. Turn back any courteous reciprocal questions in a way that your auditor doesn’t feel rebuffed.

6. Talk exclusively about yourself and your interests without complaining, boasting, or boring your companions.

7. Plan two hours of a day and stick to the plan.

8. Set yourself twelve tasks at random: e.g., go twenty miles from home using ordinary conveyance; go 12 hours without food; go eat a meal in the unlikeliest place you can find; say nothing all day except in answer to questions; stay up all night and work.

9. From time to time, give yourself a day when you answer “yes” to any reasonable request.

Doing this kind of exercise can seem artificial, but it can also be a fun way to put a little challenge into your ordinary routine. Have you tried any useful exercises along these lines?

* I was thrilled when my friend Jennifer Smith (author of the great young-adult novels You Are Here and The Comeback Season, and a member of one of my children/YA literature reading groups) sent me this extraordinary link: to J.K. Rowling’s handwritten outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I’m always fascinated to get an insight into a writer’s process.

* The Happiness Project is being published all over the world — 31 foreign editions — very exciting! To see a gallery of the covers that have been produced so far, look here. Very interesting to see the variety.

  • anonymous

    I like this: “Talk exclusively about yourself and your interests without complaining, boasting, or boring your companions.” My husband does not seem to be aware of this and has no qualms about bombarding the first person he can with the details of his miserable day at work. I try to point it out to him and he is defensive. Maybe I’m doing that right here and now….but it’s so ironic b/c we just talked about this last night.Is there a time/place for complaining? Can it be reframed into something constructive? Is it better to just vent/have a listener and not try to solve?

  • This is certainly an interesting list, but it felt very familiar as I was reading it. A quick search confirmed it; you’ve posted these before: http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2008/12/creativity-12-m.html

    They’re still intriguing ideas. Is there any particular reason you chose these 9 out of the previous 12?

    • gretchenrubin

      I love Brande’s list but thought it would be better if a bit more edited.
      I’m very intrigued by the idea of self-challenge.

      My own favorite method of self-challenge is to do a “bootcamp” — e.g., I
      wrote a novel in a month. But that’s a bit extreme!

  • This is a great list. 5 and 6 caught my attention because they really embody the art of good conversation.

    Our ability to influence and persuade others really stems from mastering these two skills. When you can keep conversation rolling by repeatedly turning the focus back to them, they will walk away feeling very positive and happy feelings, without even really understanding why.

    On the flip side, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a brag fest or bitch session.

    I am off to try to be ordinary! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Kim Bauer

  • Chico Woo

    This is interesting – I recently read that doing these types of exercises can actually help Alzheimer’s. I think we forget that the brain needs exercise also and I think the reason for this is probably because we think everyday life brings enough exercises on the mind.

    Do you think learning is an exercise of the mind or mind exercises different?

    Great article

    Chico Woo

  • LivewithFlair

    That link is amazing! It is real? I love that! http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/10/your-most-memorable-act.html

  • I couldn’t help but think that #4 and #9 wouldn’t really be a challenge for some people. Plenty of introverts size up a crowded room automatically. And a pushover might find it more challenging to say “no” to some reasonable requests. Altogether an interesting list!

    • gretchenrubin

      Good point. To get the benefit of the challenge, you have to pick the thing
      that’s a stretch for you.

      I love reading other people’s resolutions on the Happiness Project Toolbox
      site. Once I saw a person with the resolution “Just say yes” and the next
      person had the resolution, “Just say no.” both good resolutions, for the
      right person.

  • Yeah, this is a great list. People need to realize that the brain is like a muscle. Use it or lose it!

  • Kateland

    I liked point #8, especially eating at an unlikely place. A coworker friend and I recently decided to drive once a month at lunchtime to a city neighborhood we don’t usually go to and try a new-to-us restaurant each time we go. I really resisted going to one of the restaurants there because it was kind of a “hip and happening” trendy place and that isn’t what I normally like. But surprise, it was fabulous (best lobster bisque on the planet, I think) and the server was marvelous and I could have stayed there all afternoon.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    One for the men….

    Grow a full beard. It sounds like no stretch, but as any beardy can tell you, your new beard itches like crazy during the first week.

    Why is it beneficial? It breaks you out of long habits. Washing your face is different. Not shaving is different. Looking different changes the way you feel about yourself (I guess ladies radically changing their hairstyles experience the same sort of thing).

    In short you change your life by doing something different.

  • librarian

    Would love to read Wake Up and Live, but it’s no longer being published.

    • Daz88

      I’ve seen a few used copies on Amazon, but the sellers are charging quite a bit for it.

  • PNW Gal

    Wow, these seem so modern for being from 1936. One thing I noticed is that they seem to be focused away from the individual and towards others.

  • Love #2- Think for 30 minutes a day about one subject exclusively…

    …imagine if we all put that much concentration into something everyday!

  • Jane Rochelle

    Hi Gretchen,
    I enjoyed the post!

    I do find that the more I stretch myself, try new things, and set personal challenges, just for the practice of it, the more creatively my mind works … creative in problem-solving, in writing, and in conversation.

    Recently, I enjoyed Karol Gadja’s Radical Inclusion project (#yeskarol on twitter). http://tinyurl.com/3yq4kc3

    #3 would be a particularly challenging activity for me … I’d find it hard to talk for 15 minutes, even if I could use I, me, my, mine. Perhaps I should start with simply challenging myself to talk for 15 minutes. 🙂

    Thanks, Gretchen … take good care,

  • clearlycomposed

    I know these are good ideas to try out when I find myself smiling at the sheer thought of doing them. 🙂

  • I love the idea of going to an unusual-for-me restaurant. Going 12 hours without food could be rough though especially if that includes smoothies 🙂

  • Dvyes2009

    #3 & #6, were real eye openers. Today I make a resolution to follow these and dissolve my ego.

  • Arina Nikitina

    Omigawd! I have yet to try any of these nine things to do! Well, for numbers 4 and 8, I’ve tried, albeit on different levels. But yeah, I agree… it would put a great challenge to anyone’s daily routine. With that would come discoveries about others and more about one’s self.

    Gee! I gotta try the other seven things… and do more of the 4 and 8. That would be fun!

    Also, won’t it be truly interesting to have a “penpal” the old-fashioned way? The exchange of snailmails in this fast-faced generation would be a welcome thing to do for me. I just hope someone has the same idea of finding it a “challenge and fun” thing to do.

    I’d like to share other interesting brain exercises:

    1. Learn sign language and spend a day with kids who communicate this way.

    2. Watch a French or Arabic TV channel for full 30 minutes. In the end, you’d learn a few words or phrases. 🙂

    3. Draw and color like a kid. Fun!

    Anyways, thanks for this, Gretchen. It’s a poke for me to sometimes find unusual yet safe things to do. If only to perk the mind and soul from the usual routine. 🙂


    • gretchenrubin

      I have always been fascinated by sign language — that is something I would
      love to learn. Great suggestions.

      • We are having a child shortly, and have decided to do baby sign language – which is really just American Sign Language (ASL). I highly recommend a half hour on You Tube or mysmarthands.com has a ‘dictionary’ of words video taped that you can learn. My husband and I have been really enjoying learning this new language.

        • gretchenrubin

          I LOVE using sign language with babies. I did it with both my daughters, and
          it is thrilling and astonishing to see them sign and communicate well before
          they can talk.

          I just made up easy signs myself, though, for the words I figured they’d
          want to use. The actual ASL signs are sometimes too tough for babies.

          • Grandma

            I like “Signing Time” for young children. The videos teach ASL in the vocabulary children use. They’re easy to watch and remember.

  • Chittranjan N. Daftuar

    Dear Gretchen
    Three comments:
    1) I admire your effort to make people happy.
    2) You need not make effort, your photograph is enough to make one happy. Such a pleasant smiling face.
    3) We at Salahkaar Consultants have started publishing a monthly e-news letter. I seek your permission to publish this article in Dec.2010 issue.

  • It’s completely unfair to cram this many cool links in one post! I just discovered your blog and I couldn’t be happier (forgive the pun). Looking forward to reading your book.

  • Christine Smith

    #2 is easy for anyone with horses, if you’re not completely ‘there’ you’ll soon know about it!

  • Alex

    Gretchen: The book by Brande you mention seems to be a real gem. Unfortunately out of print and quite expensive. Do you (or other readers) know other useful sources for these kinds of exercises?


    • gretchenrubin

      I didn’t realize that — I got it from the library. I don’t know of other
      good sources; anyone else have suggestions?


    I was trying to explain in a short post who you reminded me of, I said Ben Franklin, for your N R G, John S.Mill, for Falsification ie the happiness mistakes, and a few others but when I looked at it I had mostly mentioned men. So I decided to look up heroines,that brought up comic book heroines, so I tried human heroines, same nonsense.
    Can you suggest 25 women who have enriched the general Good and helped make the lives of women, children and men more meaningful…

  • Yes! Wonderful post, and terrific work to be doing. Very similar to what we do at our Deeply Anchored Fulfillment retreats in Italy –