Flex Your Brain on Vacation

By: Natalie Rice-Thorp, Ph.D. | July 16, 2021

When you think of summer, do you think of swimming, hiking, road trips, and beach days? Do you think of doing brain exercises to increase your cognitive flexibility? No? Just me?

Consider this: Just as physical activity helps our bodies to maintain flexibility and move more efficiently, brain exercises help maintain flexibility in our thinking. Cognitive flexibility plays an important role in problem solving, in soothing ourselves when we feel upset, as well as interacting effectively with others.

In particular, vacations and travel pose perfect opportunities for practicing cognitive flexibility. Not going on vacation this summer? No problem. You can practice these exercises at home in your daily life. See below for some kid friendly games to increase your cognitive flexibility.

Got Road Rage?

Whether driving a road trip or your daily commute, you may encounter a situation in which another driver does something that angers you. Finding yourself perseverating on negative thoughts about the other driver or dwelling on the contentious intention at play provides the perfect opportunity to exercise your brain! Challenge yourself to think of at least 5 explanations for why the driver did what he did. Here’s the catch: The explanations must show humor or elicit empathy.

A funny example: The driver cut across lanes because an ant farm science project tipped over in his car.

Example that elicits empathy: The driver cut you off in the rush to take his dog to the veterinarian.

Explanations that feed your anger do not count. Involving all of the people in your car in generating explanations creates extra bonus points for bonding. Taking a few minutes to play this game can improve your mental and physical health as well as make the ride safer and more pleasant for everyone.

Unlucky Lucky Game

You can play this game in response to an irritating or upsetting event or you can generate your own starting point. First, you tell the story of what happened and you frame it as unlucky or bad. Then you retell the story, but with a lucky or good twist. Here’s an example:

Unlucky story: “We were running to catch the shuttle, but my shoelace broke and we arrived too late. We then had to wait an extra 40 minutes for the shuttle and the restaurant was closed by the time we arrived. What an unlucky day!”

Lucky story: “We were running late to catch the shuttle and my shoelace broke. We got to spend an extra 40 minutes together without distractions while we waited. We told stories and learned new things about each other. We also got to see some pretty birds and a banana slug. We were so lucky, since we had hoped to see a banana slug the whole trip, but hadn’t seen one until then! The restaurant we chose was closed by the time we got there so we had to make a picnic using items from a small convenience store. The moonlight picnic with random snacks provided a memorable moment. While I was buying a new shoelace, the store owner told us about a special event the next day that we didn’t know about. What a lucky day!”

Expanded Unlucky Lucky Game

See above, but take turns picking up the story. One person starts the story and then passes it on to the next person to continue and so on. You can have fun making the scenarios as outrageous and silly as possible. You get bonus points if you have the children laughing uncontrollably by the end of the story.

What-Would-You-Do Game

You pose a scenario to your friends or family members and ask what they would do in the situation. You can gradually add details to make it more interesting. For example, “You are stranded on an island with only a bottle of water, a bag of chips, and a sweatshirt. What do you do?” “Now a fish emerges from the water and offers to grant you 3 wishes, but you can’t wish to leave the island, what do you do?” “It is getting dark, and it is starting to rain, you hear the sound of animals in the distance, what do you do?” If you have enough people, you can have them work in teams for added fun. In my experience, kids come up with the most unique and impressive answers.

Try an exercise today and admire your flexible and creative brain! Cognitive flexibility benefits your mental and physical health and has an impact on all areas of your life such as your home, work, social, and recreational lives. If you would like to improve your coping and problem-solving abilities, a psychologist can help you with other ideas for enhancing cognitive flexibility.



Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

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