Learn how you can substantially improve your brain power and mental ability, as well as set yourself on the optimal path of cognitive functioning and intellectual growth. The key point is to understand the concept introduced each day, and follow its implementation as instructed- the crux of it all, is to be consistent. Once the routines are established, stick to them.
The brain is a complex organ that, among other functions, responds to stimuli and thoughts. Each thought or stimulus triggers the release of neurotransmitters, and the balance of neurotransmitters can influence the secretion of hormones- which in turn can carry signals to other organs or parts of the body. And, repeated exposure to the stimulus enforces the connections in this structure. Therefore, continuously thinking a certain type (or category) of thought, essentially builds the infrastructure for the brain to stay tuned to such thinking. Positive thoughts are associated with serotonin and dopamine, whilst negative thoughts are associated with adrenalin and cortisol. The former promote brain regeneration and growth, whilst long term exposure to the latter can damage brain cells. Cognitive distortions (also popularly known as Automatic Negative Thoughts [ANTs]) is something all of us, to a certain extent, perform on a daily basis: exaggerated irrational thoughts- most frequently with a negative connotation. In light of the evidence presented above, reversing such negative thoughts can therefore have a positive and self-perpetuating effect on the brain. Actions: [Cognitive restructuring] from today onwards, for every negative thought type that features frequently in your mental repertoire: 1. Write it down; 2. Identify the irrationality/distortion in the thought; 3. Rationally dispute the thought; 4. Conclude with a rational positive thought to counter it. Going forward, when the negative thought arises, bring to mind the positive counter argument developed in (4) and focus on it instead
Regular exposure to stress has been shown to increase the levels of cortisol in the brain; long term exposure to this hormone can have long lasting damaging effects on brain physiology and functioning- in particular, for the memory regions of the brain. Relaxation has the opposite response to stress, and it is equally a natural response that is built-in to the human body. Meditation is the traditional, and extremely potent, tool to control stress and induce relaxation, as well as promote other benefits such as: lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension, enhanced immune system, improved oxygen flow, relaxing the nervous system, improved learning ability, increased emotional stability, lasting positive changes in brain activity, increased concentration, better executive function, better health and wellbeing, enhanced creativity, and longer attention spans. The simplest form of meditation involves a mantra that gets repeated throughout the session. For example, a common choice would be the syllable “LAM”: sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, set the clock to ring in 20 minutes, and slowly repeat “LAM” mentally for the duration of the session. When thoughts creep in, gently re-focus your attention on “LAM”- do not stress, react or anger at the recurring thoughts: they are an integral part of the meditation, and shifting attention away from them is the whole purpose of the practise. Actions: Meditate at least once every day, 20 minutes each session. Preferably meditate first thing in the morning and once at lunchtime. (Avoid meditating after a meal or before going to sleep.)
Sleep is a crucial ingredient for a healthier brain and sharper mind, though, in our fast paced society it tends to be marginalised and minimised. Research suggests it is during sleep, that short term memories are transferred to long term storage. Experts also believe that sleep is a key factor in neurogenesis: insufficient sleep is linked with a reduction of new neurons and inadequate repair of existing ones. Other effects of insufficient sleep include increased risk of weight gain, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, reduced concentration, memory problems, reduced cognitive function, depression, alcoholism, bipolar disorder and reduced immune function. Adequate amount of sleep is less effective if sleep is not synchronised with the individual’s circadian rhythm. The general rule is that one should be asleep at least 6 hours prior to the point in the circadian cycle with the lowest temperature- in humans, this point is on average at 5am, making 11pm the latest time at which one should retire to bed. Actions: Go to bed at the same time every night, which must be before 11pm (if you do not work nightshift of course; if you do, you need to adjust your optimal bedtime according to your individual circadian rhythm- which would differ to the average human). And, for adults over 18 years old, aim to get 7 hours of sleep as a bare minimum- with 8-9 hours being optimal. Finally, if you use an alarm clock, make sure you schedule the alarm at the same time every day, and ensure the overall sleep period is a multiple of 90 minutes (e.g., 7.5 hours of sleep from 11pm would mean a 6.30am wake-up time)- to coincide with the completion of the average sleep cycle.
Approximately 60% of one’s bodyweight consists of water, and the ratio is close to 80% for the brain. Lack of water causes cells to shrink, which in turn can cause a wide range of neurological effects- adversely influencing cognitive function. Furthermore, insufficient water intake is also commonly linked with the increase in stress hormones circulating in the brain- in particular cortisol- which are linked with reduced ability to learn, and short-term memory deterioration. It is recommended that men drink close to 3 litres per day, whilst the recommendation for women is 2.2 litres per day. However, factors such as climate, exercise, pregnancy, health status and other lifestyle circumstances can affect this requirement. Action: Ensure you get adequate intake of water every day: 3 litres for men and 2.2 litres for women- correcting for other factors as listed above- and spreading the intake evenly throughout the day. A good indicator to validate the adequacy of your water intake is to ensure that at no point through the day you feel thirsty, and that the urine is mostly colourless.
Eating a balanced diet is crucial for healthy brain functioning as well as overall physical health. For example, omega-3 fatty acids (commonly found in cold water fish), is an important building block of brain matter (synapses, neurons and cell membranes). Brain foods: Coldwater Fish (in moderation due to possible heavy metal build up), Beans Walnuts, Cashews, Pecans, Almonds, Sunflower seeds, Pumpkin seeds, Eggs, Avocados, Tomatoes, Spinach, Yogurt, Blackberries, Raspberries, Red grapes, Cranberries, Blueberries, Oranges, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Dark Chocolate (in moderation), Fortified cereals and Whole grains. Bad (for brain) foods: Alcohol (except for red wine which may be beneficial in moderation), Refined sugar, Artificial food colourings, Artificial sweetener, Colas, Corn syrup, Hydrogenated fats, Nicotine and White bread. Actions: Incorporate the brain foods into your diet and eliminate the bad (for brain) foods, as listed above. Search for recipes that include the above brain foods, or specific diets that aim for better physical and mental health. Most importantly, ensure a healthy balance is formed between protein, carbohydrates and fats- all are necessary in every meal.
Research has shown that music can increase a child’s IQ and brain development; for adults, it was shown to improve focus and memory. Furthermore, brain scans have demonstrated physiological differences between musicians and non-musicians: with musicians having a higher volume of gray matter in certain regions of the brain; musicians require less neurons to complete the same task as non-musicians; and musicians have more developed corpus callosum (fibres that join the left and right hemispheres). Scientists believe that these differences are due to structural adaptations, which arise in response to mastering the ability to play music, and the repetitive rehearsal of that ability. Learning to play a new instrument will activate new paths in the mind; which may facilitate even deeper understanding of subjects which you have already mastered, as well as improve your capacity to learn and think. Actions: choose a musical instrument you always wanted to learn play; enrol yourself in a course, and dedicate a regular slot for practise and learning. If you already know how to play, set yourself a regular schedule of practise, and continuously strive to master more complex pieces.
Challenge Your Brain
Metaphorically speaking, the brain can be regarded as a muscle- mental activity and stimulation can promote a healthier brain, much as physical activity promotes stronger muscles. Scientifically speaking, research suggests, that intellectual activity plays a protective role against dementia: researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that the reduced risk of dementia may be as high as 75%. Actions: From this day onwards, establish a routine in which you solve one entertaining challenge a day: be it a Crossword, Puzzle, Sudoku, Riddle, Rubik’s cube, Arithmetic problems, Chess or a Logic question. There are countless websites and books that offer a wide selection- start easy and built your abilities gradually.
Research suggests that exercise can improve brain functioning; act as an antidepressant; increases blood flow and thus oxygen uptake- including to the brain; possibly protects against dementia; releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever; promotes neurogenesis (stimulating the formation of neurons); and increases serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that play a role in concentration, mood and sleeping patterns. Actions: From this day onwards, establish a routine in which you spend at least 30 minutes, 5 times per week, performing aerobic activity- mixing between vigorous (e.g. running) and moderate (e.g. walking). Walking, Running, Swimming or Cycling are popular choices. The best approach is to design a schedule that involves a variety of sports and physical activities that you enjoy.
Spend more time with people who make you feel good; people who inspire you; and people with similar hobbies/goals. Research suggests that even short periods of daily interactions with another person, can improve memory and cognitive functions- the more complex the interaction the stronger the effect. Actions: Ensure you interact daily, with like minded individuals, discussing complex matters or debating contentious topics. Face to face is preferable due to the added stimulus of reading body language and facial expressions. Secondly, join groups and forums for topics of interest- the old fashioned book club is still very effective.
TV v. Other Hobbies
The average American watches over 4 hours of TV per day- i.e., more than a sixth of his life. TV has been associated with: externally influenced belief-system, lack of critical analysis, addiction, brain degeneration due to lack of use and shortened attention spans- all these effects are even more severe on young children. The message is clear: reduce the amount of time you spend in front of the TV, and replace it with time spent on challenging cognitive activities- reading is a good choice. Learning and challenging the mind, was demonstrated to have an enhancing effect on memory and survival of new neurons. Continuous effort to learn and grow intellectually means that more connections are made between neurons- which in turn builds a stronger network from which information can be retrieved. Actions: Gradually reduce TV time to one movie and one TV-show per week. Replace this time with brain building activities such as: learning a new language (Research has shown that speaking more than one language, may slow the degeneration of cognitive abilities that is common with the ageing process); reading technical books and novels; computer programming or building structures (airplanes, ships, or even better: inventions and gadgets); the list can go on, the main ingredients should be something you enjoy and that it is mentally challenging. Why not make the learning and accumulation of knowledge, your hobby? In The Manual: A guide to the Ultimate Study Method (USM), a powerful system that uses Speed Reading, Memory systems, Concentration Techniques and Optimal Note-Taking , is introduced with a wide variety of examples and applications.