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5 ways to increase brain power

Stashed in: #lifehacks, Brain, Awesome, Kaizen, Skills to Pay the Bills, @emmaseppala, @emmaseppala

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1. Seek Novelty

When you seek novelty, several things are going on. First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections—learning is taking place.

An area of interest in recent research [pdf] is neural plasticity as a factor in individual differences in intelligence. Plasticity is referring to the number of connections made between neurons, how that affects subsequent connections, and how long-lasting those connections are. Basically, it means how much new information you are able to take in, and if you are able to retain it, making lasting changes to your brain. Constantly exposing yourself to new things helps puts your brain in a primed state for learning.

Novelty also triggers dopamine, which not only kicks motivation into high gear, but it stimulates neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons—and prepares your brain for learning. All you need to do is feed the hunger.

Excellent learning condition = Novel Activity—>triggers dopamine—>creates a higher motivational state—>which fuels engagement and primes neurons—>neurogenesis can take place + increase in synaptic plasticity (increase in new neural connections, or learning).

Does seeking novelty mean to learn new things or to do new things or both?

i think mostly doing, which also involves learning.

Well sometimes, but sometimes doing new things is really going to new places.

It's not learning per se, but it is exploring.

that's the best!

2. Challenge Yourself

There are absolutely oodles of terrible things written and promoted on how to “train your brain” to “get smarter”. When I speak of “brain training games”, I’m referring to the memorization and fluency-type games, intended to increase your speed of processing, etc, such as Sudoku, that they tell you to do in your “idle time” (complete oxymoron, regarding increasing cognition). I’m going to shatter some of that stuff you’ve previously heard about brain training games. Here goes: They don’t work. Individual brain training games don’t make you smarter—they make you more proficient at the brain training games.

Now, they do serve a purpose, but it is short-lived. The key to getting something out of those types of cognitive activities sort of relates to the first principle of seeking novelty. Once you master one of those cognitive activities in the brain-training game,you need to move on to the next challenging activity. Figure out how to play Sudoku? Great! Now move along to the next type of challenging game. There is research that supports this logic.

A few years ago, scientist Richard Haier wanted to see if you could increase your cognitive ability byintensely training on novel mental activities for a period of several weeks. They used the video game Tetris as the novel activity, and used people who had never played the game before as subjects (I know—can you believe they exist?!). What they found, was that after training for several weeks on the game Tetris, the subjects experienced an increase in cortical thickness, as well as an increase in cortical activity, as evidenced by the increase in how much glucose was used in that area of the brain. Basically, the brain used more energy during those training times, and bulked up in thickness—which means more neural connections, or new learned expertise—after this intense training. And they became experts at Tetris. Cool, right?

Here’s the thing: After that initial explosion of cognitive growth, they noticed a declinein both cortical thickness, as well as the amount of glucose used during that task. However, they remained just as good at Tetris; their skill did not decrease. The brain scans showed less brain activity during the game-playing, instead of more, as in the previous days. Why the drop? Their brains got more efficient. Once their brain figured out how to play Tetris, and got really good at it, it got lazy. It didn’t need to work as hard in order to play the game well, so the cognitive energy and the glucose went somewhere else instead.

Efficiency is not your friend when it comes to cognitive growth. In order to keep your brain making new connections and keeping them active, you need to keep moving on to another challenging activity as soon as you reach the point of mastery in the one you are engaging in. You want to be in a constant state of slight discomfort, struggling to barely achieve whatever it is you are trying to do, as Einstein alluded to in his quote. This keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak.

I summarize this as: If I'm not struggling then I'm not learning.

i think this is part 2 of seeking novelty: this is the learning part.

Is the key to keep pushing yourself a little further each time?

it sounds like it, but then again, there's that whole idea of flow...

Flow is about pushing yourself into the zone, right?

3. Think Creatively

When I say thinking creatively will help you achieve neural growth, I am not talking about painting a picture, or doing something artsy, like we discussed in the first principle, Seeking Novelty. When I speak of creative thinking, I am talking about creative cognition itself, and what that means as far as the process going on in your brain.

Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking does not equal “thinking with the right side of your brain”. It involves recruitment from both halves of your brain, not just the right. Creative cognition involves divergent thinking (a wide range of topics/subjects), making remote associations between ideas, switching back and forth between conventional and unconventional thinking (cognitive flexibility), and generating original, novel ideas that are also appropriate to the activity you are doing. In order to do this well, you need both right and left hemispheres working in conjunction with each other.

Not sure how to make my brain do this.

your brain does it while you are stashing and organizing all the info from the web!

Oh cool! Well that comes naturally.

4. Do Things the Hard Way

Look at it this way: Driving to work takes less physical energy, saves time, and it’s probably more convenient and pleasant than walking. Not a big deal. But if you drove everywhere you went, or spent your life on a Segway, even to go very short distances, you aren’t going to be expending any physical energy. Over time, your muscles will atrophy, your physical state will weaken, and you’ll probably gain weight. Your overall health will probably decline as a result.

Your brain needs exercise as well. If you stop using your problem-solving skills, your spatial skills, your logical skills, your cognitive skills—how do you expect your brain to stay in top shape—never mind improve? Think about modern conveniences that are helpful, but when relied on too much, can hurt your skill in that domain. Translation software: amazing, but my multilingual skills have declined since I started using it more. I’ve now forced myself to struggle through translations before I look up the correct format. Same goes for spell-check and autocorrect. In fact, I think autocorrect was one of the worst things ever invented for the advancement of cognition. You know the computer will catch your mistakes, so you plug along, not even thinking about how to spell any more. As a result of years of relying on autocorrect and spell-check, as a nation, are we worse spellers? (I would love someone to do a study on this.)

There are times when using technology is warranted and necessary. But there are times when it’s better to say no to shortcuts and use your brain, as long as you can afford the luxury of time and energy. Walking to work every so often or taking the stairs instead of the elevator a few times a week is recommended to stay in good physical shape. Don’t you want your brain to be fit as well? Lay off the GPS once in a while, and do your spatial and problem-solving skills a favor. Keep it handy, but try navigating naked first. Your brain will thank you.

This one I like. Nothing good comes easy.

this is my favorite one, too.

I like a world without shortcuts. It evens the playing field.

5. Network

And that brings us to the last element to maximize your cognitive potential: Networking. What’s great about this last objective is that if you are doing the other four things, you are probably already doing this as well. If not, start. Immediately.

By networking with other people—either through social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or in face-to-face interactions—you are exposing yourself to the kinds of situations that are going to make objectives 1-4 much easier to achieve. By exposing yourself to new people, ideas, and environments, you are opening yourself up to new opportunities for cognitive growth. Being in the presence of other people who may be outside of your immediate field gives you opportunities to see problems from a new perspective, or offer insight in ways that you had never thought of before. Learning is all about exposing yourself to new things and taking in that information in ways that are meaningful and unique—networking with other people is a great way to make that happen. I’m not even going to get into the social benefits and emotional well-being that is derived from networking as a factor here, but that is just an added perk.

I think this is less about networking and more about interacting thoughtfully with others.

i agree.  and you, of all people, would know the difference!

Yes, and I try to teach others that networking for its own sake is not usually fruitful.

i was thinking the same thing.  besides, you can always suss out a self-serving networker!

i'm glad to hear you say it, though, because i am not an active networker and i read these things that say i should be... sometimes it gets me worried!

Don't worry. You don't need quantity. You need quality!

phew!  because i may not have a lot, but i've got quality people on my team.  :)

quality quantity quote

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