Making time to catch up with a friend or discuss a new show with your spouse isn’t just enjoyable. It’s a workout for your mind.
You know being active is important for your health and quality of life. You probably see the connection between lifting dumbbells and feeling stronger when you carry your groceries.
But did you know your brain needs exercise too? One of the easiest ways to give it a workout: Talking to people every day.
Conversations build working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control — a trio of skills known as executive function, according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. It also draws on the parts of your brain involved in reasoning and comprehension. And the effect seems to be distributed across both sides.
The left side of your brain controls speech and language. You use it while talking. The right side powers creativity. Exposing yourselves to new ideas and perspectives gets that involved too. So when you’re listening to someone who looks at the world a little differently, you’re exercising both sides of the brain together, says Patrick K. Porter, Ph.D., founder of the guided meditation program BrainTap.
Going even deeper, conversation works at least eight different regions of your brain, he says. And that work, a type of stress, keeps the brain strong and limber. “This is why it is important to have a variety of friends to talk to,” Porter says. “Our brain, like any muscle, only gets stronger through stress.”
But engaging in conversation is like any other activity — you have to do it to build and maintain your skills. If you’re not talking to people regularly, your body will shut down pathways between neurons, or brain cells. You may find it harder to process what another person is saying and formulate a quick response.
The harder conversation becomes, the less likely you are to want to catch up with an old friend or strike up a chat with a stranger. Chit-chat just becomes too exhausting. So you need to put in more effort to get started. “It’s like going back to the gym after a long break,” Porter says. “You’re going to be really sore at first.”
The good news: You can become a conversational whiz. With dedicated practice, you’ll build a strong brain and your daily interactions will become easier. Here are five ways to work the muscle between your ears.
1. Ask open-ended questions
Avoid making statements or asking questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, ask the other person questions that provoke more thoughtful responses. Questions like, “What’s happening in your life?” and “Where is your favorite vacation spot?” will likely lead to dialogue that’s more beneficial for your brain.
2. Converse daily
Aim to engage in at least one conversation per day. Ideally, have three or more. Chat up a neighbor, friend, family member, or even a stranger. If starting a conversation sounds daunting, rest assured that asking the first question is typically the hardest part.
“Once the conversation starts, it’s like opening a champagne bottle,” Porter says. “Everything will start flowing.”
3. Join a social club or group
Do you have a favorite hobby or activity? Knitting? Reading? Gardening? However you like to spend your free time, consider finding a group of others who like the same thing. If you can’t find one, why not start your own? Board games and cards are both good excuses to get people together in a room. Recruit some friends and schedule regular in-person or virtual meetings (Zoom is free!).
“You could give the group a topic and have people come prepared to answer three questions related to the topic,” Porter says.
4. Practice on your own
It can be tough to find someone to talk to at times. Thankfully, you can still work on your conversation skills on your own by talking through your memories.
“It’s about getting those brain circuits to start lighting up again,” Porter says.
Think of a pleasant memory and begin describing it out loud. Imagine you’re recounting the memory to someone who can’t see. Try to be as detailed as possible. It might feel awkward at first, but each time you practice this exercise, you’ll probably add more details to make the memory a richer experience. Make sure you focus on good memories, as this will create positive connections in your brain, Porter says.
5. Walk and talk
Physical exercise and conversation are each powerful on their own, but you can boost their effects by combining the two. Simply chat and walk with a friend or family member.
You can still get some benefits of conversation if you’re walking alone. How? By saying the alphabet out loud while you walk. Say one letter with each step.
It may sound easy, but even younger adults struggle to make it through the ABCs while walking at the same time.
“It’s one of those things that’s a real challenge,” Porter says. “Your brain will get a tough workout.”