…For answer Holmes clapped the hat upon his head. It came right over the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. "It is a question of cubic capacity, " said he; "a man with so large a brain must have something in it. " … Sherlock Holmes – The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.
Not everyone is born with a big brain. Not everyone can say things like ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ with a straight face. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get an edge on the competition. Remember that scene from the Matrix, where the machines are using humans as disposable AA batteries? That’s not far off the mark. With over 100 billion neurons, your brain produces about 100 Watts of raw energy. The mind literally has a life of its own. And like your other muscles, the more you use it, the bigger it gets, the better it works.
If you’re looking to improve mental cognition, increase your memory, and enhance your alertness, here are 15 easy ways to give your brain a six-pack.
1. Exercise: You knew it was good for your muscles, but the brain? Absolutely! More than 20% of the body’s blood and oxygen go directly to the brain (without passing GO or paying $200). Exercise, particularly cardio training, effectively increases the flow to the brain, keeping it a well-oiled machine. But if you’d like something a little more Zen, try Yoga. Many of the Yoga poses, like Downward Facing Dog, are specifically engineered to get blood to your brain faster, by positioning the head below the heart. But if you’re really pressed for time, something as simple as opening a window and getting fresh air can give your brain the extra juice it needs.
2. Hydrate: If you’re looking for a little pick-me-up, don’t reach for your usual double espresso. Instead try drinking two glasses of water. The caffeine in coffee and soda may temporarily make you feel more alert, but in the long run will make you even more tired by dehydrating your muscles and constricting your blood vessels. And in large quantities, caffeine can send you running for the bathroom with a bad case of the trots, as it stimulates the spastic contractions of the intestine. Water, on the other hand, is a simple way to keep the mind alert and refreshed. And you can’t beat the price.
3. Find Stimulation: A friend of mine used to say, “I don’t need caffeine, I have Motorhead.” And he always got his papers in on time. Now heavy metal may not be your thing, but listening to music can increase your productivity. Just like the smell of dinner can bring on hunger pangs, engaging all five senses will stimulate brain activity. For example, the color pink is a visual aphrodisiac. The arousal will dilate your pupils, increase blood flow, and set off pleasure centers in the brain – all of which will make you more alert and focused. By decorating your work area brightly or switching your font color to something more vivid, you can work through boredom and fatigue. Aromatherapy can be enormously effective, as smell is the strongest of the senses. Lemon, peppermint, and cypress are several scents known to stimulate the brain. Or eating a peppermint candy will activate both scent and taste. Taking notes by hand instead of typing them, will help you retain the information more effectively, as the pressure points activated by holding a pen are linked to the creative and memory centers of the brain.
4. Think Happy Thoughts: We’ve all seen those Hitchcock thrillers, where a person does or witnesses something so terrible they completely block it from their mind. Well, on a much smaller scale, that kind of memory loss is happening all the time. The brain, particularly the memory, doesn’t respond well to stress. If you’re tense, overwrought, or unhappy, you’re much less likely to retain information or stay alert. Try to eliminate stressful influences from your life and workplace. Practice relaxation techniques, take a hot bath, or get a massage. Or fry up some bacon. I’ve often found that happiness = bacon. Anyway, your body is very tuned into your emotions, and it shows way more than you think.
5. Play Games: Not Hide n’ Seek. Studies with dementia patients have shown that playing word games and puzzles can increase and even restore mental cognitive abilities. The crossword, a pub quiz, or Soduku: all these fun activities can keep your grey matter in the pink. And the best part is that you don’t actually need to know anything. This is one instance where winning doesn’t matter, because your brain responds to the attempt to solve the problem, not the knowledge stored in your head. Probably the best brain games are those with strategic goals like Chess, Risk, and Stratego, as the objectives are in a constant flux, and require more activity from the brain.
6. Watch Quality TV: Wouldn‘t it be nice if that were true. Unfortunately, studies indicate that passively sitting in front of the tube is counterproductive. But if that butt-shaped indention in your recliner calls out to you, choose a game or quiz shows like Jeopardy, and try to answer the questions. Even if you have never heard of the Federalist Papers, your brain will be stimulated in the same way as if you were playing Trivial Pursuit with your friends.
7. Surf the Net: Net-addicts unite! We’ve known it all along, and now we’ve been proven right. A recent study at the University of California Los Angeles found that searching the web stimulated centers in the brain that controlled decision-making and complex reasoning. A simple task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry. Brain scans showed that much more of the brain was activated by internet use than by simply reading a book. Not to mention, there are all sorts of lovely online brain teasers and games on the web, just waiting to make you smarter. And here’s the clincher: the more you surf, the more your brain works.
8. Eat Brain Food: Don’t go on one. Depriving yourself of food literally starves the brain and makes you dumb dumb dumb. But if you want to get peak mental performance from what you eat, here are a few things to remember. Protein is the main source of fuel for the brain. But don’t automatically switch over to Atkins, cause your brain also needs foods rich in crucial vitamins and minerals. It’s always better to get these from food rather than taking pills. Vitamin A, to protect brain cell membranes; B Vitamins, essential for neuronal growth and vitality; Vitamin C, so vital for brain function that its levels in the brain are fifteen times higher than anywhere outside the brain; Vitamin E, to prevent and actually reverse brain deterioration; Magnesium, to maintain the metabolic viability of neurons; Zinc, rids the brain of impurities such as lead to improve cognitive function; and Amino Acids, necessary to the growth and health of neurotransmitters.
9. Load Up On Fish Oil: “Jeeves takes a size 14 hat, eats tons of fish, and works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.” When creating his immortal, all-knowing valet Jeeves, author P.G. Wodehouse gave the character an enormous, bulging cranium and a steady diet of brain-enhancing fish. It was no surprise when scientists proved what we knew all along: eating fish can make you brainy. Actually, it’s not the fish, but the Omega -3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that do the trick. These fatty acids keep the dopamine levels in the brain high, increase neuronal growth in the frontal cortex of the brain, and increase cerebral circulation. Which is a complicated way of saying that fatty acids make your brain work at top efficiency, kinda like a tune-up. But before you stockpile your pantry with tuna, remember that eating large amounts of fish can put you at risk to toxins and mercury poisoning. So it’s better to get EPA and DHA from alternative sources and supplements.
10. Eat Weeds: Not the kind you hide from your parents, but herbal remedies. Eastern medicine is kicking ass and taking names where your brain is concerned. There are about a dozen or so ‘brain-boosting’ herbs, but the two most important are Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng. As medicinal tonics go, it doesn’t get more powerful than Ginkgo, by enhancing cerebral circulation, which freakishly boosts cognitive abilities. Ginseng, regarded as the ‘Cadillac’ of Asian herbs, has astonishing neurological effects. Once believed to re-harmonize the body’s ‘yang energy,’ we now know that Ginseng helps the brain adapt to stress agents by heightening the productivity of the adrenal glands. The result is a balanced stimulant, that achieves brain arousal and alertness without the nervous, jittery, guy-from-Shine response of most stimulants.
11. Learn Something New: This seems pretty obvious, right? But it’s not that simple. Very few people find the time to master new skills or even read a new book that isn‘t for work or class. Learning a foreign language, a new handcraft or recipe, or challenging yourself with an unfamiliar subject all increase brain growth, stimulating parts of the brain that may have been stagnant and untapped til now. But all this takes time, right? Wrong! Try spending 15 minutes a day on your new discovery, about the same time as all the commercials in an hour-long TV show, and you’ll be surprised how much you learn.
12. Don’t Waste Time: If your brain were a computer, how many times a day would it be flashing the hourglass sign? Albert Einstein, one of the world’s greatest thinkers, gave us the Theory of Relativity, and some very good advice: "Make everything as simple as possible." You can hardly expect your brain to perform at its best if it’s cluttered with non-essentials. The best way to organize your mind is to declutter your life. Maximize your time with a few personal alterations. Save time in the morning by deciding the night before what outfit you’ll wear. Make and keep a list of daily and long-term priorities, and don’t let your focus wander. Try multi-tasking. If you’re going to be in the bathroom awhile, take along a book or some work you need to finish (you’re not doing much else!) If you have a long commute or get stuck in traffic, make the most of the time by listening to an audio book. If you have to stand in line at the bank or the shops, bring along some notes you need to review or flashcards for that new language you decided to learn. Sure you may look funny, but you’re getting smarter.
13. Actively Improve Your Memory: There’s a new character on Grey’s Anatomy who’s been stunning us with her photographic memory, recalling obscure articles from turn of the century medical journals, railing off the periodic table without batting an eye. For the actress playing this character to do so convincingly, I’ll bet she had to find a more efficient way of memorizing data. There are loads of different tricks and methods purporting to have the answer, but basically they all boil down to a few basic principles.
First, know how you learn. There are three basic ways of learning: visual, auditory, kinetic. You can figure out which one you are by listening, reading, and writing three different sentences to see which you remember the best. Once you know how you learn, optimize that knowledge. If you are visual, post-its will be a big help. If you are auditory, invest in a hand-held recorder.
Second, the most effective way to remember facts is by forming multiple associations. For example, you may remember the date of your dentist appointment, because that number was the age of your favorite singer when he died. Or something a little more cheerful, but you get the idea. If you’re a visual person, try to form an effective mental image or snap shot. For example, if you park your car in section 4b, you may remember that by taking a snap shot of four bumblebees hovering over the roof of your car. Try forming an emotional association. If your wife asks you to pick up something at the store, think for a minute how disappointed she’ll be if you forget it, and most likely you won’t.
Third, rinse and repeat. Repetition is a tried and true method of memorization. Just for fun, pull out the old SAT prep book from high school and see how much vocabulary you still remember. Give your memory a workout by re-learning these forgotten gems.
14. Rest Almost nothing is as crucial to proper and efficient brain functioning as sleep. Not everybody needs the same amount of sleep, but trying to think when you’re tired literally hurts. Here are some ways for your brain to get the most out of sleep. If it takes you a long time to fall asleep, don’t fight it or give up and take a pill. Instead ease into sleep by reading a book. But make sure it’s fiction. While you might think non-fiction would be more boring, studies show that non-fiction triggers forward thinking in the brain, which prevents sleep. If you wake up tired, it might not be because you didn’t get enough sleep. It could be because your brain is starved from fasting while you slept. Trying eating a low sugar, 100 calorie snack before bed. This won’t be enough to keep you awake, and it may prevent that tired-head in the morning. If, despite your best efforts, you don’t get enough Z’s, seriously consider a nap. Naps are not childish or European, they are a perfectly natural way to buck up your brain. A series of short naps (20-30 minutes) throughout the day won’t repair hours of sleep debt, but it will stave off the exhaustion that leaves your brain utterly useless and you without a job.
15. Have Sex: Women will go weak at the knees at the thought of the size of your…brain. That’s right. A lot happens to the body during sex, and much of it goes on in your head. Your brain, that is. There is no activity that increases more blood flow to the brain, enhancing cognitive capabilities. Having sex also produces hormones that dramatically improve brain functioning. One example includes the ‘trust’ hormone Oxytocin, which is produced during sex. This increases your ability to think of original solutions to a problem while serotonin and dopamine, which surge after sex, help a person’s creative thinking and calm, logical decision-making. And if you’re having any trouble falling to sleep, to give your brain the rest it needs, look no further.