Quick, what's the capital of Finland? Who was Abraham Lincoln's first vice president?
If you knew the answer to either of those questions and were able to come up with Helsinki or Hannibal Hamlin right away, you probably just got a nice little burst of dopamine in your brain.
And if you know what dopamine is, you probably just got another.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical in the brain that helps regulate movement, attention, learning and emotional responses. It's sometimes known as the "feel good" hormone because dopamine levels increase in anticipation of a reward-like winning a game or falling in love.
Or answering a trivia question correctly.
A 2006 study published in the neuroscience journal "Neuron" proves reward-motivated learning promotes memory formation via dopamine release in the brain. This means when you anticipate a reward for something-like, say, scoring points in a trivia game by correctly answering a question-dopamine levels increase and help strengthen the memory.
This is all great news for someone like me, who identifies as somewhat of a trivia nut. Though I don't currently have access to broadcast TV channels, I absolutely love the game show "Jeopardy!" I've watched a fair amount over the years when I did have more TV access, but now that I don't, I rely on the show's app, Jeopardy! World Tour, for my trivia fix. The app allows me to play games against other users, earn "money" for winning games and complete daily and weekly challenges.
To be honest, I probably spend more time playing my pretend "Jeopardy!" than I'd like to admit. But after looking into the mental health benefits of trivia, I don't feel too bad about it. First of all, I know I'm helping my mind stay sharp. Trivia exercises my memory when I try to recall answers to questions I know I've heard in the past, and it helps with my cognition, which is the process of acquiring knowledge, or in simpler terms, learning. Research shows trivia is an effective way to build cognition and make future learning and knowledge retention easier.
The Jeopardy! World Tour app is completely free to use, with optional paid upgrades. Trivia Crack is another popular free trivia app, or for a more laid back trivia experience with no time limits on the questions, General Knowledge Quiz is a good option. At my last job, my co-workers and I would play that any time we went out for lunch as a way to pass the time while we waited for our food to arrive. It kept us occupied and mentally fit by throwing out questions from numerous different categories.
If trivia isn't exactly your thing though, there are a whole host of other ways to exercise your brain and strengthen your mind.
Brain training games have become increasingly popular as of late. According to MarketWatch, a Dow Jones publication, Americans spent $1.9 billion on apps to train their brains in 2018, a significant increase from $475 million in 2012.
Smartphone apps like Lumosity, Peak, Brain Training and CogniFit feature various games to help strengthen different functions of the brain, including memory, attention and speed, along with language, math and problem-solving skills.
While the four apps I mentioned are free to download and each include a few free games, in order to get the full cognitive benefits of the apps, users have to pay for an upgraded version.
Following a recommendation from one of my editors, I've personally gotten hooked on Lumosity over the last few days. This app features about 60 different games in the categories I just mentioned. For $11.95 a month or $59.99 for a year, users get unlimited access to all the games, along with a daily workout, where the app suggests five games in five different categories for a well-rounded brain workout.
The app's free version includes access to three games each day, which rotate daily.
I've been playing a couple of the games in the attention category that also require a little bit of speed and multitasking. Aside from being pleasantly challenging and even a little addictive, these games require enough focus that they actually serve as nice little stress relievers from time to time, because during the couple minutes it takes to play each game, I totally forget everything else around me. I can play on my lunch break at work and relax for a while instead of worrying about that long article I know I have to labor over later.
And oddly enough, when I get back to my computer, I actually feel like my brain is more stimulated and I find it easier to focus on my work.
I've also noticed an improvement in my reading abilities after a few days of using Lumosity. I usually like to wind down at night by reading a little before bed. I've never been a very fast reader, but that doesn't usually bother me when I'm just reading for pleasure. The last couple days, however, I feel like I've been able to pick up the pace a bit, while still comprehending everything. Whether that's actually the case or I'm just trying to justify all the time I've spent playing brain training games has yet to be seen, but I do honestly feel like the wheels in my brain are moving a little faster when I read than before.
By combining scores from all the different games played, Lumosity gives users a Lumosity Performance Index, which is a standardized scale that compares your strengths and weaknesses across the different cognitive abilities the games test. The performance index allows users to track their progress in different areas and identify what functions can be improved.
While Lumosity is the only app I've sprung for financially, I've tried a couple others out, too. The app called Brain Training offers a good amount of free games as well-though I prefer Lumosity's offerings-while Peak and CogniFit Brain Fitness feature a handful of free offerings before requiring users to pay for the full braining training experience.
If you're someone who already likes to pass the time by playing games on your phone, trivia and brain training apps are a great way to continue doing that while also keeping your mind sharp.
If you're someone who likes to limit screen time each day, many of the brain training apps I mentioned feature some sort of "daily workout" component that only take a couple minutes to complete and can prove beneficial in the long run.
In terms of trivia, General Knowledge Quiz is an extremely simplistic app that doesn't require users to make an account or anything. Just open it up and answer as many or as few questions as you like to stimulate your brain, even if just for a couple minutes.
And who knows when some random tidbit of obscure knowledge might be useful? Hopefully knowing Helsinki and Hannibal Hamlin will help you out someday.