Sharpen Your Brain in the Kitchen: How Cooking Improves Brain Health

Seven Ways That Cooking Boosts Brain Power

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

Do you want to preserve your memory and have fun at the same time? Dr. Restak explains how taking up cooking can help your brain in seven ways.

woman cooking in kitchen
Cooking involves memory skills which, in turn, helps you to strengthen your overall memory. (Image: Shutterstock/lenetstan)

Maintain Brain Health

To maintain brain health and prevent Alzheimer’s and other age-related brain diseases, Dr. Restak recommends that you develop what he calls a magnificent obsession. Successful people often have obsessive character traits they use, sometimes to their advantage but sometimes to worry and fret about things. The antidote is a magnificent obsession. 

Take up a subject that interests you, but is unrelated to your background, education, profession, or life experience. For example, Dr. Restak met a food retailer who studied Egyptology throughout his life. Devote an hour a day to improving through practice a specific aspect of your performance in an area of interest.

“I enjoy cooking, for example,” Dr. Restak said. “I took it up a decade ago, and I find it an excellent way of keeping my brain active.”

The goal is to prepare a meal so that everything is ready on time. It’s not always easy to do this because cooking skills tend to decrease with age unless deliberate efforts are made to maintain them. This is because cooking calls on frontal lobe function, which is affected by aging.

Cooking and the Frontal Lobes

Cooking strengthens and challenges not just the frontal lobes, but also all of its related functions. First, improve sensory acuity by getting to know herbs and spices. 

What do they taste like? What do they look like? Where can they be found in the supermarket? 

Which ones go well with others? Which ones can be substituted for others? Finally, which ones are never to be put together?

Second, cooking improves sensory memory. Your experience with herbs, spices, and specific foods will enable you to imaginatively create in your mind how a dish will taste simply by reading the recipe. This takes time and won’t come easily, but with perseverance, you can do it.

Third, cooking improves fine motor skills with slicing, dicing, grating, chopping, mincing, julienning, separating eggs, measuring, and planning out the presentation and aesthetics of the meal. 

How does it look? What are the colors? Fine decorating is especially important for desserts.

Fourth, cooking improves attention. You must pay direct attention to the recipe, with concentrated focus on the directions. 

Look for terms or procedures you don’t understand. Is a recipe doable given your current knowledge and skills? Don’t try to cook everything. 

“For instance, I don’t make pastry,” Dr. Restak said. “I’ve given up on pastry. I always go out and buy pastry.”

Fifth, cooking improves working memory. Balance your time and resources as necessary. If you’re going to make shrimp pasta, the pasta is going to take longer to cook than shrimp, so start the pasta first. 

As you work, focus on how the food will look and taste. Don’t forget about one dish while working on another.

Improve Memory by Cooking

Sixth, cooking improves general memory. How did the dish turn out when you cooked it before? What were the problems? 

“I keep a recipe and preparation book, where I try to have the recipe and a picture of what it looked like,” Dr. Restak said. “I like to see the picture of the food. I enter comments about the dish afterwards—what I found easy and what I found hard. I even give myself a grade—A to C, hopefully nothing lower than C.”

If it’s a new recipe, does it remind you of other things you’ve cooked before? How did they turn out?

Seventh, cooking improves the frontal lobes function of sequencing and anticipating. You have to function as a sous chef before you get to be the full-time chef. You have to have everything ready so it comes together at the proper time. 

All components are ready to serve and everybody’s happy. You also have to make changes and improvise. If you decide to make a salmon dish and salmon isn’t available, you have to substitute halibut or striped bass. 

Try new things, but retain insight and humor about your current limitations. When a dish doesn’t turn out the way you anticipated, ask a more experienced cook what he or she thinks went wrong. 

Formal lessons might be helpful, but they’re probably not necessary to optimize brain function; have fun with other people, socialize, and enjoy a good meal.

Cooking is Dr. Restak’s recipe for maintaining brain health. You can engage in other activities such as hunting, fishing, or playing a team sport. Find ways to tailor them to your own interests, so you’ll look forward to practicing them. Only with practice will you have the best chance of optimizing your brain function. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD 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 450 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.