Our lives are overfilled with things to do. And the more driven, ambitious, and connected we are, the busier we stay.
We are bombarded with messages to “unplug,” get away, take a break, slow down, and engage in “me” time.
While these things are absolutely necessary and essential to our mental wellbeing, busyness does have its benefits.
Researchers have found that staying busy improves mental processing and reasoning skills, helps improve memory — both long and short term — and improves overall mental functioning.
Busy people have sharper minds and better memories, plain and simple.
In a study conducted by researchers in Texas and Alabama, 330 healthy men and women ranging from age 50 to 80 were quizzed about their daily schedules and put through a battery of mental tests.
The results showed that no matter how old they were or how well educated, a busy lifestyle was linked to a healthy brain.
In this particular study, researchers began with the hypothesis “that a busy schedule would be a proxy for an engaged lifestyle and would facilitate cognition.” They were able to determine that greater busyness was associated with better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.
How does staying busy improve memory?
The brain, like any other muscle, needs exercise. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is mental exercise. Scientists believe that the amount and types of stimulation directly affects cognitive processes — especially in the area of memory improvement.
Some of the mental processes involved in having a hectic schedule are:
- Problem solving
- Interruption and re-engagement of thought
- Linear thinking
- Global thinking
Researcher Dr. Sarah Festini of the University of Texas at Dallas said, “We show that people who report greater levels of daily busyness tend to have better cognition, especially with regard to memory for recently learned information.”
Busyness improves episodic memory — the ability to recall specific events and working memory — which is the part of short-term memory concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing.
The study reported a surprising correlation: the busier the individual, the higher he or she seemed to score on the cognitive tests. It’s possible, the researchers hypothesized, that the daily workout of completing task after task is building our brains up and improving mental skills.
The performance gap between the busy and the free was even more pronounced among older participants.
Before you run out and overfill your schedule with random activities, consider this:
The results of this study are one-sided, and therefore not entirely conclusive.
Keep in mind the study only examined how mental engagement works to improve memory and mental cognition. It did not study the negative effects of a harried and mentally taxing lifestyle. Having a crammed mind does not automatically equal a sharper one.
“In our fast-paced, wired world, many of us live our lives in chronic stress,” says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. That means our brains are being perpetually bathed in stress hormones like cortisol.
Studies done in mice show that chronically elevated stress hormone levels shrink the hippocampus, so while your memory may be improving, you’re less likely to form new memories.
Even though the research does prove that staying busy helps keep the brain honed, a hurried life could carry less positive consequences for our hearts and metabolisms.
Using busyness responsibly:
For those who may have some additional mental bandwidth and room in their schedules for another activity, try to engage in tasks that will improve memory and your overall brain function, such as:
- Take a class — nothing too stressful but be sure it is something that genuinely interests you.
- DIY projects — these are fun and challenge your brain in different ways.
- Learn a new skill — any activities where your brain is engaged in the learning process will stimulate and improve all cognitive processes.
- Try something new and different — such as restaurants, recipes, activities, routes home, or grocery stores.
- Plan an event from start to finish.
- Work out — physical exercise is scientifically proven to be just as beneficial as mental exercise.
- Volunteer — spend your time engaging in an activity that you connect with. This will improve your mind, body, and soul.