Last week, I gave a lecture about hypnosis and the brain, and shared a lot of research about what we currently know or have observed occurring in the brain when someone is hypnotised. It is fascinating stuff for sure. That very night after the lecture, I got talking to numerous professional peers about the brain and those discussions really caused me to write this article here today.
We all know that exercise is good for us on a wide variety of levels, right? We are constantly told we should be getting active to help us lose weight or stay fit. Yet very few think beyond usual physical exercise and given much thought about what brain exercise can do for you or how to exercise the brain.
Our brain is made up of 100 billion neurons (I don’t envy the guy who had to count them) that communicate with each other via hundreds of different chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Brain exercise can increase the level of these important neurotransmitters and growth factors; reversing damage caused by toxic levels of stress and depression; neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that govern our mood and our motivation, something that kratom powder could be used to help; as well as growth factors which nourish our neurons, a bit like brain fertilizer!
By elevating these important chemicals, brain exercise keeps our brain in balance, directly influencing our ability to learn and improving the brain’s potential to take in and process new information. It also heightens our senses, increases our focus, improves our mood and motivation, it guards against anxiety and stress, and it even reverses some of the effects of aging in our brains. It’s high time to get on that Exerciserig because in contrast, inactivity physically shrinks our brains.
I was terrified last year when a study was published that stated “ultra-marathon distance running causes the brain to shrink!” Oh no, shock, horror for me and my penchant for ultra running. However, the study suggested that it was not running per sé that created the brain shrinkage, but the long periods of time spent without really activating or engaging the brain. Good job I always use my running time to stimulate and exercise my brain whenever possible too then!
I was worried that this was going to be me……
The brain can be seen as being a bit like a muscle which grows with use and shrinks with inactivity and exercise can be the catalyst for biological changes that encourages brain growth.
Contrary to popular belief our brains are not hard-wired, they are constantly being re-wired, and exercise is our way of being an electrician for our own brains. For me, brain training and mental exercise is about keeping my mind sharp and functional as I get older. Let me explain what I mean by that…..
In a study of black cab drivers in London, the Irish Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire, showed their regular use of navigational cognition resulted in a measurable redistribution of grey matter in their hippocampi (that is the plural of hippocampus, I love that I got to write that here today).
By studying the brains of competitors in the World Memory Championship, Maguire also showed that when the competitors were tasked with memorising stuff, they mainly used areas of the brain that correspond to spatial memory. In the 2003 article published in the prestigious journal Nature, Maguire and colleagues stated:
“…We found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences. Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular. …[research in this area] could broaden the scope for memory improvement in the general population and the memory-impaired.”
This illustrates my main point here. Brain training and brain exercise is not really about becoming more intelligent as a result (though many believe such is possible, while others consider it a natural bi-product of brain training). It is really about improving your mind’s flexibility so that you make the best use of your existing intelligence.
By exploring new ways of being creative, reading often and reading different kinds of material, by challenging your mind with math puzzles and cryptic riddles, and partaking in a regimen of brain exercise, you can keep your mind flexible, more of your mind’s resources will be available and you’ll access more of the intelligence you have. Here are a number of ways to do that:
Read more, but also read a variety of materials.
Set aside some time in the day to read new and stimulating material, read articles and/or blogs from your professional field and then read books and materials that may challenge you and stretch your mind; fiction, history, biographies. We have so much access to reading materials these days – go track down those classic novels, those business books you have wanted to read and those ground breaking contributions to knowledge that passed you by first time.
Travel has a similar effect upon us to reading new materials, whereby you expose yourself to new mediums, cultures, sights and sounds and get your brain actively engaging a new environment. For those who can’t travel to somewhere new every week; read.
2. Keep Thinking:
Enjoy new thought and exploring new boundaries with your mind.
Learn new things. Struggle to understand new concepts. Challenge yourself to comprehend classic theories and concepts too. Explore philosophical conundrums.
Maybe that’s why Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM had the simple word “THINK” on a plaque on his desk. Use your brain everyday so it gets better with time. Challenge yourself by embracing new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
3. Be a Lifelong Learner:
Always stay curious and interested. Ask “?” and most importantly look for answers. Stop saying “I don’t know,” and go find out. Don’t be an over-consumer of content. Be aware of the difference between consuming content and creating content. It’s ok to consume some content – to watch the game, or some news, or your favourite TV show but don’t lose control of your consumption. Choose it consciously.
4. Be A Critical Thinker:
Very relevant to the previous two points; think critically.
Learning how to be a critical thinker and engaging in critical thinking is whereby you adopt an attitude of figuring out answers for yourself rather than preferring to be given correct answers.
Instead of just relying on gut feelings, you reflect and intelligently reason when making decisions. You acknowledge and review any mistakes made and you embrace construct criticism or challenge to your ideas and thoughts, not always defending your own biases because you have always felt or thought that way in the past.
5. Be Creative:
I cannot stress how much creating something helps. As Sir Ken Robinson, the internationally recognised leader in education and business says, “Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.”
To create you have to use your imagination, you have to engage your mind, your thoughts and even your body. Writing is usually something that everyone can participate in so go ahead and start with a daily journal, then move on to something more complex and challenging from a blog to a book or stories or ideas. Even building something new as a personal project or hobby will push you further.
Create art, music, create in the garden, create fun and laughter, whatever it is, create new connections in your brain as a result.
6. Have Downtime:
Downtime for the brain can be meditation, mindfulness, self-hypnosis (my preferred choice, obviously) or taking an afternoon power nap.
The brain needs time to process all that info and to come up with new creative thoughts and ideas. Let it sit and refresh, renew, reinvigorate. If you don’t know how to let your thoughts flow freely yet, learn how to meditate or use self-hypnosis.
Learn how to use meditation, mindfulness or self-hypnosis whenever and wherever you are.
7. Learn a New Hobby:
You don’t have to master it, but just something to temporarily engage your brain every week or month.
Whether it’s a new game where you have to learn the mechanics of how to play, or a new skill or temporary hobby. Usually playing new games, using new apps works well enough to get you thinking differently.
If you have children, you can even combine learning new games with activities you do with them.
8. Solve Problems:
Enjoy problem solving, make problem solving an attitude.
Start off by doing puzzles, riddles and such, consider crosswords, Sudoku, or double free cell. Then start to relish problems in life in general.
Don’t run away from daily issues and challenges, but seek proper solutions for your problems. Many people just sit with issues in their lives because they’re too lazy to apply some brain power and find a permanent solution as supposed to a temporary one that just grinds them.
9. Take a Walk:
Getting off the couch and onto your feet is one of the best things you can do for your brain! Research has shown that people who do regular aerobic exercise are 30 percent more likely to maintain their cognitive function and have a lower risk for dementia than those who do not exercise at all. Taking a walk at a vigorous pace at least 30 minutes a day 5-6 times a week will do the trick.
Oxygenate your brain!
10. Eat Healthy:
The brain weights about 3 lbs. That’s just 2% of your body weight if you weigh 150lbs. Yet, amazingly, your brain uses 20% of your resting 1300 calories used a day. Give yourself, and your brain, good nutritious food.
Healthy fats, oils and the ingredients of a healthy, balanced diet filled with wholefoods will serve your brain wonderfully well.
11. Get Your Rest:
Just because scientists don’t know a lot about sleep, doesn’t mean you don’t know why it’s important. Even as an experiment of one – you know this for sure. You think well when you’re rested, when the restorative powers of sleep allow your brain to work its magic. Rewire, store, dream, and remix, whatever. Let your brain do its best by letting it sleep.
Learn how to sleep well and for the healthiest amount of time for you.
12. Use Apps:
There are lots of brain training apps out there. They are keen to sell you on the virtues of using them, of course they are, though there are also a number of dissenting perspectives out there that dispute the science as it is presented by the app companies. I have regularly used Lumosity, Elevate and Fit Brains and I think they are all great.
After a year of membership with each, I found I needed a change from playing the same games, but I have used each of those for at least a year each and thoroughly enjoyed them.
13. Membership Websites:
For a bunch of stuff that does not really cost a lot and offer some variation from brain training apps such as Cerego, Khan Academy, and Memrise for example, which are my favourites offering a variety of ways to stretch and push your mental capabilities.
The bottom line is this with regards to brain training of any kind: you can do yourself a lot of good by learning how to make the most of your own intelligence and training your brain by giving it a good workout on a regular basis. A lifestyle that incorporates both physical and mental workouts is going to give you the most benefit now and in the years to come.
In addition to all I have written here, mental exercise is fun. Playing apps, enjoying board games, attempting to build a card castle, or solving maths puzzles can be a wonderful amount of fun. I love the way it makes me and my brain feel!
Go and enjoy exercising your brain.