Work is often stressful and tiring. But could your job also be making you smarter?
It might. New studies by neuroscientists show training in certain mental skills can build the brain’s capacity to process information and solve problems. Experts say practicing those skills on the job may also help sharpen cognitive abilities.
It takes more than just sitting down at your desk, though. A person must be challenged and stimulated, tackling progressively harder tasks and reaping rewards as an incentive to keep building the brain, says Michael Merzenich, a leading researcher and author of “Soft-Wired,” a book on practical applications of brain plasticity.
Researchers for more than a decade have been exploring how various jobs affect cognitive abilities. More than a dozen studies, including six in the past two years, link time spent in various occupations, from writing or teaching math to performing music or being an athlete, to increased density or activation of regions of the brain related to core job skills. The impact of such physical changes in the brain on workers’ overall cognitive ability isn’t clear.
Recently, researchers have begun teasing out the specific cognitive abilities required by particular jobs. Many are abilities that can be improved with practice. Training adults in blocking out distractions, focusing on tasks and interpreting facts leads them to perform better on tests of abstract reasoning and controlling one’s attention, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Illinois.