The brain is a three-pound supercomputer. It is the command and control center running your life. It is involved in absolutely everything you do. Your brain determines how you think, how you feel, how you act, and how well you get along with other people. Your brain even determines the kind of person you are. It determines how thoughtful you are; how polite or how rude you are. It determines how well you think on your feet, and it is involved with how well you do at work and with your family. Your brain also influences your emotional well being and how well you do with the opposite sex.
Your brain is more complicated than any computer we can imagine. Did you know that you have one hundred billion nerve cells in your brain, and every nerve cell has many connections to other nerve cells? In fact, your brain has more connections in it than there are stars in the universe! Optimizing your brain’s function is essential to being the best you can be, whether at work, in leisure, or in your relationships.
It’s simple, your brain is at the center of everything you do, all you feel and think, and every nuance of how you relate to people. It’s both the supercomputer that runs your complex life and the tender organ that houses your soul. And while you may run, lift weights, or do yoga to keep your body in good condition, chances are you ignore your brain and trust it to do its job.
No matter what your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. So, here are 22 ways to boost your brain power:
1. Run up your brain cells.
Research suggests that people who get plenty of physical exercise can wind up with better brains. Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., found that adult mice who ran on an exercise wheel whenever they felt like it gained twice as many new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory, than mice who sat around all day discussing Lord of the Rings in Internet chat rooms. The researchers weren’t sure why the more active rodents’ brains reacted the way they did, but it’s possible that the voluntary nature of the exercise made it less stressful and therefore more beneficial. Which could mean that finding ways to enjoy exercise, rather than just forcing yourself to do it, may make you smarter – and happier, too.
So, play a sport, train for an event such as a marathon, triathlon or “fun run,” or work out with a buddy to help keep things interesting.
2. Exercise your mind.
It isn’t just physical exercise that gets those brain cells jumping. Just like those head-pumped cabbies and piano jockeys, you can build up various areas of your brain by putting them to work. Duke University neurobiology professor Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., co-author of Keep Your Brain Alive, says that finding simple ways to use aspects of your brain that may be lagging could help maintain both nerve cells and dendrites, branches on the cells that receive and process information. Just as a new weightlifting exercise builds up underused muscles, Katz says that novel ways of thinking and viewing the world can improve the functioning of inactive sections of the brain.
Experience new tastes and smells; try to do things with your nondominant hand; find new ways to drive to work; travel to new places; create art; read that Dostoyevsky novel; write a buddy comedy for Ted Kennedy and Rush Limbaugh – basically, do anything you can to force yourself out of your mental ruts.
3. Ask why.
Our brains are wired to be curious. As we grow up and “mature” many of us stifle or deny our natural curiosity. Let yourself be curious! Wonder to yourself about why things are happening. Ask someone in the know. The best way to exercise our curiosity is by asking “Why?” Make it a new habit to ask “why?” at least 10 times a day. Your brain will be happier and you will be amazed at how many opportunities and solutions will show up in your life and work.
Scientists tell us that laughter is good for our health; that it releases endorphins and other positively powerful chemicals into our system. We don’t really need scientists to tell us that it feels good to laugh. Laughing helps us reduce stress and break old patterns too. So laughter can be like a “quick-charge” for our brain’s batteries. Laugh more, and laugh harder.
5. Be a fish head.
Omega-3 oils, found in walnuts, flaxseed and especially fish, have long been touted as being healthy for the heart. But recent research suggests they’re a brain booster as well, and not just because they help the circulation system that pumps oxygen to your head. They also seem to improve the function of the membranes that surround brain cells, which may be why people who consume a lot of fish are less likely to suffer depression, dementia, even attention-deficit disorder. Scientists have noted that essential fatty acids are necessary for proper brain development in children, and they’re now being added to baby formulas. It’s possible that your own mental state, and even your intelligence, can be enhanced by consuming enough of these oils.
Eating at least three servings a week of fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna is a good start.
Get out an old photo album or high school yearbook. Your brain is a memory machine, so give it a chance to work! Spend time with your memories. Let your mind reflect on them and your mind will repay you in positive emotions and new connections from the memories to help you with your current tasks and challenges.
7. Cut the fat.
Can “bad” fats make you dumb? When researchers at the University of Toronto put rats on a 40-percent-fat diet, the rats lost ground in several areas of mental function, including memory, spatial awareness and rule learning. The problems became worse with a diet high in saturated fats, the kind that’s abundant in meat and dairy products. While you may never be called upon to navigate a little maze in search of a cheddar cube, these results could hold true for you as well, for two reasons: Fat can reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain, and it may also slow down the metabolism of glucose, the form of sugar the brain utilizes as food.
You can still get up to 30 percent of your daily calories in the form of fat, but most of it should come from the aforementioned fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Whatever you do, stay away from trans fats, the hardened oils that are abundant in crackers and snack foods.
8. Do a puzzle.
Some of us like jigsaw puzzles, some crossword puzzles, some logic puzzles – it really doesn’t matter kind you choose to do. Doing puzzles in your free time is a great way to activate your brain and keep it in good working condition. Do the puzzle for fun, but do it knowing you are exercising your brain.
9. The “Mozart Effect.”
A decade ago Frances Rauscher, a psychologist now at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, and her colleagues made waves with the discovery that listening to Mozart improved people’s mathematical and spatial reasoning. Even rats ran mazes faster and more accurately after hearing Mozart than after white noise or music by the minimalist composer Philip Glass. Last year, Rauscher reported that, for rats at least, a Mozart piano sonata seems to stimulate activity in three genes involved in nerve-cell signalling in the brain.
This sounds like the most harmonious way to tune up your mental faculties. But before you grab the CDs, hear this note of caution. Not everyone who has looked for the Mozart effect has found it. What’s more, even its proponents tend to think that music boosts brain power simply because it makes listeners feel better – relaxed and stimulated at the same time – and that a comparable stimulus might do just as well. In fact, one study found that listening to a story gave a similar performance boost.
10. Improve your skill at things you already do.
Some repetitive mental stimulation is ok as long as you look to expand your skills and knowledge base. Common activities such as gardening, sewing, playing bridge, reading, painting, and doing crossword puzzles have value, but push yourself to do different gardening techniques, more complex sewing patterns, play bridge against more talented players to increase your skill, read new authors on varied subjects, learn a new painting technique, and work harder crossword puzzles. Pushing your brain to new heights help to keep it healthy.
11. Be a thinker, not a drinker.
The idea that alcohol kills brain cells is an old one, but the reality is a bit more complicated. In fact, a study of 3,500 Japanese men found that those who drank moderately (in this case, about one drink per day) had better cognitive functioning when they got older than those who didn’t drink at all. Unfortunately, as soon as you get beyond that “moderate” amount, your memory, reaction time is all likely to decline. In the same study, men who had four or more drinks a day fared worst of all.
Just as bad is the now common practice of “binge drinking,” otherwise known as getting hammered on the weekend. Research on rats found that those who consumed large amounts of alcohol had fewer new cells in their brains’ hippocampus region immediately after the binge, and virtually none a month later. This suggests that the alcohol not only damaged the rats’ brains, but kept them from repairing themselves later on – in human terms, that means you shouldn’t expect to pass the Mensa entrance exam any time soon.
Take time to play. Make time to play. Play cards. Play video games. Play board games. Play Ring Around the Rosie. Play tug of war. It doesn’t matter what you play. Just play! It is good for your spirit and good for your brain. It gives your brain a chance to think strategically, and keeps it working.
13. Sleep on it.
Previewing key information and then sleeping on it increases retention 20 to 30 percent. You can leave that information next to the bed for easy access, if it is something that won’t keep you awake. If you are kept awake by your thoughts, writing everything down sometimes gets it “out of your mind,” allowing you to sleep (so keep a pen and paper nearby).
Concentration can increase brainpower. Obvious, perhaps, but the thieves of concentration are not always so obvious. Learn to notice when you are distracted. Often the cause is just below consciousness. If there is a phone call you need to make, for example, it might bother you all morning, sapping your ability to think clearly, even while you are unaware of what is bothering you.
Get in the habit of stopping to ask “What is on my mind right now”. Identify it and deal with it. In the example given, you could make the phone call, or put it on tomorrow’s list, so your mind is comfortable letting it go for now. This leaves you in a more relaxed state where you can think more clearly. Use this technique to increase your brainpower now.
15. Make love for your brain.
In a series of studies by Winnifred B. Cutler, PhD and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and later at Stanford University it was found that regular sexual contact had an important impact on physical and emotional well being of women. Sexual contact with a partner at least once a week led to more fertile, regular menstrual cycles, shorter menses, delayed menopause, increased estrogen levels, and delayed aging. Brain imaging studies at UCLA have shown that decreased estrogen levels are associated with overall decreased brain activity and poor memory. Enhancing estrogen levels for women through regular sexual activity enhances overall brain activity and improves memory.
In Dr. Cutler’s study the occurrence of orgasm was not as important as the fact that sex was with another person. Intimacy and emotional bonding may be the most influential factors in the positive aspects of sex. As a psychiatrist I have seen many people withhold sex as a way to show hurt, anger, or disappointment. Dr. Cutler’s research suggests that this is self-defeating behavior. The more you withhold the worse it may be for you. Appropriate sex is one of the keys to the brain’s fountain of youth.
16. Play with passion!
You can’t do great work without personal fulfillment. When people are growing through learning and creativity, they are much more fulfilled and give 127% more to their work. Delight yourself and you delight the world. Remember what you loved to do as a child and bring the essence of that activity into your work. This is a clue to your genius; to your natural gifts and talents. da Vinci, Edison, Einstein and Picasso all loved to play and they loved to explore.
17. Cycles of consciousness.
Your consciousness waxes and wanes throughout the day . For most it seems to go through 90 minute cycles, with 30 minutes of lower consciousness. Watch yourself to recognize this cycle. If you learn to recognize and track your mental state, you can concentrate on important mental tasks when your mind is most “awake”. For creative insight into a problem, do the opposite. Work on it when you are in a drowsy state, when your conscious mind has slowed down.
18. Learn something new.
This one might seem obvious. Yes, we capitalize on our brain’s great potential when we put it to work learning new things. You may have a specific topic for work or leisure that you want to learn more about. That’s great.
Go learn it. If you don’t have a subject in mind right now, try learning a new word each day. There is a strong correlation between working vocabulary and intelligence. When we have new words in our vocabulary, our minds can think in new ways with greater nuances between ideas. Put your mind to work learning. It is one of the best ways to re-energize your brain.
19. Write to be read.
I am a big proponent of writing in a journal to capture ideas and thoughts. There is certainly great value in writing for yourself. I continue to find that my brain is greatly stimulated by writing to be read. The greatest benefit of writing is what it does to expand your brain’s capacity. Find ways to write to be read – by writing things for your friends to read, by capturing the stories of your childhood, starting your own blog or whatever – just write to be read.
20. Try aroma therapy to activate your brain.
One day, as I was falling asleep, while listening to endless speeches at a conference, my brain suddenly perked up when I caught a whiff of lemon from someone’s cologne. I immediately felt alert and found it much easier to pay attention to the presenter. I discovered aroma therapy really is useful and I have used it ever since revitalize or to relax.
Energizers include peppermint, cypress and lemon. Relaxants: ylang ylang, geranium and rose. A few drops of essential oils in your bath or in a diffuser will do the trick. You can also put a drop or two in a cotton ball or hanky and inhale. One caveat for the workplace; make sure no-one is allergic to the oils before you use them.
21. Drugs to increase brainpower.
Coffee and other drinks containing caffeine help students consistently score higher on tests. Since caffeine restricts blood vessels in the brain, it isn’t clear what the longer-term effects may be when it comes to your brainpower. So instead of coffee breaks try gingko biloba and gotu kola herbal teas. Ginkgo biloba has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, and improve concentration.
22. Build a brain trust.
Surround yourself with inspiring people from a wide variety of fields who encourage you and stimulate your creativity. Read magazines from a wide variety of fields. Make connections between people, places and things, to discover new opportunities, and to find solutions to your problems.
Remember that no matter what your age or your occupation; your brain needs to be constantly challenged to be at its peak in terms of performance. Whether it’s doing logic puzzles, memorizing lines from Shakespeare, or learning a new skill, keep your brain busy, if you don’t want it to rust away like a car in a junkyard.