Engage Your Senses with These Sensory Brain Exercises

Try These Visual, Auditory, and Motor Exercises

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

When you think of brain exercises, word games or crossword puzzles are probably the first things that come to mind. But your five senses need exercise, too! Richard Restak, Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, provides you with visual, auditory, and motor exercises.

Woman painting on canvas
Involving your five senses in a creative activity exercises the functioning of your brain. Photo by Mladen Mitrinovic / Shutterstock

Why You Need Sensory Brain Exercises

Think of learning as a tree. In full bloom, the tree gives off branches, twigs, leaves, and blossoms. Similarly, learning leads to fuller and richer circuits; if learning stops, the brain reverts to a state similar to the tree in winter: bare branches, no leaves, stark, and skeletal. 

You keep your brain circuits vibrant like a tree in full bloom by exercising your brain. Brain exercises that engage your five senses are just as important as traditional exercises such as word problems when it comes to maintaining and enhancing your brain’s plasticity.

We often pay insufficient attention to what our senses are telling us. This leads to failures of memory because we can’t remember what we never registered. Thus, it is helpful to exercise our elementary physical sensations. Here are a few examples of visual and auditory exercises, as well as motor exercises involving hand dexterity.

Visual Exercises

Actors have always used sense memory, which they have traditionally practiced with a coffee cup. Give it a try: Hold the cup; recognize and memorize its height, its color, its composition, its ridges, its design, and how it reflects light. 

Now involve your other senses: How does it feel? How heavy is it? What sound does it make when you flick it on the edge? 

You are trying to recreate the cup in your brain. The same brain circuits are involved as when dealing with exploring the real cup. An actor can make the audience “see” a cup that he’s not actually holding because of this ability. Pick any other object that interests you, and re-create it via a similar exercise.

Auditory Exercises

In the 1950s, Jack Foley at Universal Pictures came up with the idea of assembling a studio where he could create live sound effects for movies by using simple and readily available sources. This required a sharp ear for sounds—for instance, crumpling a newspaper sounds like fire. 

Try it for yourself. Close your eyes, roll a newspaper up, put it to your ear, and crumple it. It sounds just like a fire. 

Foley artists need a sharp ear for the sounds of everyday objects to create their special effects. For instance, the laser blasts in Star Wars were made by taking a hammer and hitting a high-tension wire that supports an antenna. 

As a sound exercise, listen to the things around you in order to sharpen your sensitivity. Try to figure out what sounds might be substituted for others.

You can listen to classical music, comparing composers, performers, and performances. You can also train yourself to recognize the sounds of certain birds. 

“At my home in Prince Edward Island in the summer, there are a lot of frogs, and I’ve sort of come to recognize the call of different frogs from listening to them and listening to different recordings,” said Dr. Restak.

Finally, listening for the purpose of detecting emotions in human voices is very important. The human voice conveys many emotions because of changes in tone, cadence, loudness, and pacing.

Motor Exercises

Exercises involving the hand are functionally related to the brain. Developing nimble fingers is a surefire way to improve brain function: Take up juggling or a hobby that requires fine detail work like knitting, painting, drawing, or calligraphy.

Your brain and your intelligence can change throughout your lifespan. And most important, you are able to shape those changes in your own brain. 

Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 438 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.