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8 Ways to Entertain Your Brain

The next time you’re bored, try these entertaining exercises.

Key points

  • Online distractions are not always available to keep people's minds occupied, but this doesn't mean people have to be bored.
  • Research on the brain's default mode network (DMN) shows that it can take outside stimulation and turn it into inner entertainment.
  • Part of digging into the DMN involves recalling past events. Games that involve memory training may reduce boredom and also promote brain health.

As ubiquitous as they may be, the distractions presented by smartphone apps and video games may not always be available to keep your mind occupied. Perhaps you’re on the dentist’s chair, settling in for a long and potentially uncomfortable bout of treatment. You may be in a more pleasant situation, such as sitting in a beach chair and watching the waves hit the shore. In either case, you may find your mind searching for something, anything, to provide you with inner stimulation.

You might argue that distracting yourself instead of focusing on the present moment runs counter to everything you’ve been learning about the practice of mindfulness. After all, shouldn’t you be focusing on each crash of the surf, and not letting your mind wander elsewhere? Isn’t that why you went on vacation? The paradoxical feature of mindfulness is that the more you think about trying to think about each experience you’re having in depth, the harder it is to achieve that inner peace you seek.

On the other hand, there may not be as strong an argument to make for practicing mindfulness in the dentist’s chair as your mouth fills with equipment. True mindfulness practitioners would undoubtedly find a way to use even these painful experiences in order to live in the present moment, but this seems like a real stretch to you.

When you cannot or do not want to practice mindfulness, and your smartphone isn’t available to occupy you otherwise, why not use your brain itself to provide your own entertainment? After all, you’ve got years of experiences to draw from that you can pull back into conscious awareness. Using what’s called the brain’s “default mode network,” or DMN, you may surprise yourself at just how much fun you can have by letting your billions of neurons take over your inner life.

The Role of the Default Mode Network in Your Brain’s Inner and External Experiences

Long thought of as what you might call the “playground” of the brain, the DMN was thought to be active only when you’re processing internally-generated stimuli, such as daydreams. However, according to Tel-Aviv University’s Yaara Yeshurun and colleagues (2021), the DMN actively integrates external stimulation, such as your experiences, into its own operation. Yeshurun et al. argue that: “the DMN is an active and dynamic ‘sense-making’ network that integrates incoming extrinsic information with prior intrinsic information over long timescales to form rich, context-dependent, idiosyncratic models of the situation as it unfolds over time."

In other words, if your brain is going to have internal stimulation worth generating, it also needs to have “grist for the mill” from actual events that have occurred in your life. Imagine if you had nothing new to think about other than the thoughts you were born with. Indeed, the DMN processes not only your experiences, according to the Israeli authors, but also the experiences of other people through shared communication.

As you feed your own experiences and those you share with others into your mental apparatus, you can begin to build rich sources of “playthings” to give your brain plenty to exercise with. When you’re alone with your thoughts, then, you’re not truly alone, because your “shared narratives” with others give you more material with which to work.

The Value of Exercising Your Memory

Based on the Yeshurun et al. article, part of digging into your DMN involves recalling events from the past. However, being able to recall those events may require its own set of games. According to a recent study by Concordia University (Montreal)’s Brittany Intzandt and colleagues (2021), memory training can be as beneficial as physical exercise in promoting brain health. In reviewing the findings of 38 studies comparing cognitive with exercise training on both cognitive performance and structural changes in the brain of older adults, the Canadian authors report the efficacy of a strategy of training known as the Method of Loci in which you remember information by associating it with physical places, such as the rooms of your house. Participants trained in this method were able to expand their ability to recall lists of unrelated words if they received sufficient practice (at least 10 weeks of training).

If it’s true that this simple, time-honored, mnemonic trick can expand your cognitive ability while also enriching your brain, then being able to entertain yourself by playing with your memory could actually have its own potential benefits aside from the ability to distract you when you’re bored.

8 Brain Entertainment Strategies

It’s time to list the 8 brain strategies you can use the next time you’re looking to engage your own DMN as a source of entertainment:

  1. Try to remember the lines from a well-loved play or movie. Revisit all those great quotes that you like to pull out when you match wits with fellow theater or movie buffs. How many can you bring into conscious awareness? Which were the funniest and which the most poignant?
  2. Immerse yourself into the scene of a painting. Imagine a well-known piece of art such as one of Monet’s water lilies or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. What is it like to walk in the garden or on the banks of the River Seine? Who are you with?
  3. Think back to your first day of elementary school. Who was your teacher? What did you wear that day? Did you have fun? How many specific images can you pull into your awareness?
  4. Come up with an invitation list for your next social event. Pick the people you’d most like to have join you, and then try to remember the names of their spouses or partners. If you're having trouble with names, do you at least remember their faces?
  5. Practice that Method of Loci. This form of entertainment may take some prior preparation but it’s still something you can do when you’re trying to amuse yourself without any external stimuli. Set out to memorize one of those favorite speeches or scenes from a movie, associating each phrase or sentence with a room in your home or another well-known location. Then see how well you do when you’re on your own with no external cues by retracing your steps through the house or location.
  6. Plan your next vacation. You might not want to plan a vacation while on vacation—although some people do enjoy this—but when you’re trying to get your mind focused on something fun, this can be an excellent form of exercise. According to a new study by UCLA’s Colin West and colleagues (2021), you can even use planning for your weekend as a “vacation” to reap significant emotional benefits.
  7. Organize your menu for the week. Another type of planning that can take you away mentally from an unpleasant bout of boredom involves food. Whether or not you’re the one doing the cooking, you can still go through the mental motions of picking out your favorite delicacies and ways to prepare them. In addition to being entertaining, meal planning can also potentially benefit your health. Université Paris researcher Pauline Ducrot and colleagues (2017) found that people who plan their meals also end up having healthier diets and are less likely to be obese.
  8. Play games with whatever sensory stimulation you can find. While seated in the dentist’s chair, do you notice a pattern in the ceiling tiles? Can you make different shapes from those patterns? How about the music that might be on in the background? If it’s a well-known song, can you recall the words? How would you change the words if you could, to match your situation? The quality of openness to experience, a personality trait, appears to be related to certain forms of intelligence as well as creativity (Liu et al., 2017).

To sum up, it’s great to be able to practice mindfulness, given its relationship to mental and physical health. However, when mindfulness is out of reach for you, or you’d rather be transported elsewhere, these brain entertainments can provide their own benefits.

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Ducrot, P., Méjean, C., Aroumougame, V., Ibanez, G., Allès, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Hercberg, S., & Péneau, S. (2017). Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14. https://doi-org/10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7

Liu, X., Liu, L., Chen, Z., Song, Y., & Liu, J. (2017). Indirect effects of fluid intelligence on creative aptitude through openness to experience. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. https://doi-org/10.1007/s12144-017-9633-5

Intzandt, B., Vrinceanu, T., Huck, J., Vincent, T., Montero-Odasso, M., Gauthier, C. J., & Bherer, L. (2021). Comparing the effect of cognitive vs Exercise training on brain MRI outcomes in healthy older adults: A systematic review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 128, 511–533. https://doi-org /10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.07.003

West, C., Mogilner, C., & DeVoe, S. E. (2021). Happiness from treating the weekend like a vacation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(3), 346–356. https://doi-org /10.1177/1948550620916080

Yeshurun, Y., Nguyen, M., & Hasson, U. (2021). The default mode network: Where the idiosyncratic self meets the shared social world. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 22(3), 181–192. https://doi-org/10.1038/s41583-020-00420-w