I’m a Neurologist. Here’s the One Thing I Do Every Day for My Long-Term Brain Health

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Playing an instrument, in particular, engages every facet of your brain. If you’ve ever looked at a sheet of music, it’s basically like reading a different language. Your brain goes through a bunch of hoops to figure it out. (Anecdotally speaking, as a former cello player, I can attest to the fact that reading music is no joke; I recall spending hours trying to understand a simple string of notes.) When you sit down to play the keys or strum a guitar, your brain is hard at work trying to tell your hands what to do.

Musical activities trigger the auditory cortex (a.k.a. the part of your brain that helps you hear) and areas of your brain that are involved in memory function. According to a 2021 review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, performing music is rewarding and makes you want to continue your musical training practice. It also improves brain plasticity, which refers to ways your brain changes in response to external or internal factors, like a stroke or another traumatic brain injury, and how the brain adapts afterward. Learning how to play might result in structural and functional changes in your brain over time, exactly because it takes a while to learn.

Your brain-bolstering activity of choice doesn’t have to be music-based, Dr. Marcuse says, as long as you’re interested in whatever you’re doing enough to want to commit to it. You can paint, try tai chi, or learn how to interpret tarot cards.

The other key piece of this is making sure that your new hobby involves some amount of challenge. “It has to be something a little new that’s a little hard,” Dr. Marcuse says. Passively watching the latest episode of The Bachelor won’t cut it, because you need your brain to be active, take in new information, digest it, and then put it back out there.

While you might feel that learning a new skill feels daunting, that’s the point! According to Dr. Marcuse, you don’t have to be good at the activity to protect your brain: “I never took music lessons as a kid. I’m not really good at it. I never will be,” she says.

And despite not being the next Mozart, she says that playing the piano adds some color and levity to her days, in addition to protecting her brain. “I really need that in my life—I have a very stressful job,” she says. “It makes me feel that the world is sort of full of beauty and hope.”

How to make a new skill a regular part of your life—and why it’s great for your brain

You don’t have to do the activity every single day, or even for a very long time. “Just try to do it frequently, and don’t do it for very long,” Dr. Marcuse says. Sometimes all she has time for is a few bars or a couple of scales—do whatever works for you, as long as you stay somewhat in the swing of a routine.


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