It seems that the more scientists know about our brains, the more they still need to learn. Our brains are a complicated tangle of neurons and glial cells that control everything we do, from blinking and breathing to cooking and playing video games. What researchers have found is that we can make our brains stronger and more adept at doing the myriads of tasks we ask it to do each day. Here are five ways you can boost your brain power.
Ways to boost your brain power
Many of us get stuck in a rut, and so our brains do, too. We follow the same routine each day. We eat the same things. We go to work the same way. We do the same job. We watch the same television shows. However, research shows that when we shake things up a bit, our brains respond and work better.
Seek out a different way to do your daily tasks. Drive to work a different way, take up a new card game, read a different type of literature than you are used to, or do a crossword puzzle. “When you seek novelty, several things are going on,” says Andrea Kuszewski, a researcher with METODO Social Sciences Institute, the U.S. branch of METODO Transdisciplinary Research Group on Social Sciences, based in Bogotá, Colombia. “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.”
Other ways to create more of those brain connections are by learning a foreign language, learning to play an instrument, or learning another new skill. Challenge yourself to walk backwards (do this in a safe place), or to write with your less dominate hand. And here’s some good news for gamers! A recent study by the University College London (UCL) and Queen Mary University of London measured the cognitive flexibility — or the ability to adapt and switch between tasks and think about multiple ideas at a given time to solve problems — of 72 volunteers.
Two groups of participants (who were all women because they did not have enough male volunteers who were not already experienced gamers) were trained to play different versions of a real-time strategy game called StarCraft. A third group played the life simulation game, The Sims, which does not require as much use of memory or as many tactics to play. The results showed that the women who played StarCraft were better and quicker at performing cognitive flexibility tasks, than those who played The Sims. According to UCL Professor Brad Love, the study results show that cognitive flexibility can be trained and improved with gaming.
Exercising your body helps your brain
It stands to reason that exercise is good for your body, but did you know that it helps your brain as well?
Charles Hillman, a professor at the University of Illinois, found in a 2009 study that moderate exercise (30 minutes for adults and 20 minutes for children) can result in a 5 percent to 10 percent improvement in cognitive skills. Research also suggests that regular exercise could have long-term benefits, including possibly delaying the start of Alzheimer’s disease.
Without regular exercise, plaque can build up in the arteries and blood vessels, a leading cause of heart attacks. Plaque buildup reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients that the blood is able to carry to the brain, compromising brain function. Aerobic exercise, including activities such as running, brisk walking, swimming and dancing, is the best for raising levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein that encourages neurons to grow.
Scientists have found that what you eat affects your brain. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in food such as wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel, chunk light tuna, dark leafy green vegetables and walnuts, are linked to brain development and a lower risk of depression. In addition, eating foods that have a healthy amount of fat helps our long-term memory.
According to Larry McCleary, M.D., author of the book The Brain Trust Program, we should eat fresh fruits, veggies, and lean proteins and avoid trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup for optimal brain health.
Another way to keep your brain powered up is by adding some spice to your diet. A spoonful of cinnamon or a dash of sage, cumin or cilantro can help ward off memory loss, for example.
Your mom knew what she was doing when she made you eggs for breakfast. Eggs are a great source of B vitamins, which enable our nerve cells to burn glucose; antioxidants, which protect neurons against damage; and omega-3 fatty acids, which keep our nerve cells going at optimal speed.
Our bodies are largely made of water, so it makes sense that our brains are, too. Scientists say our brains are 80 percent water, so if we are not hydrated, our brain function can be impaired.
A University of South Florida study completed in 2006 found that people who drank three or more 4-ounce glasses of fruit or vegetable juice each week were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who drank less.
Researchers say that lack of water can hamper oxygen flow to the brain or shrink neurons temporarily. Our size and our activity level affect our fluid requirements, but daily water needs range from about 13 cups for men to about nine cups for women (pregnant women and nursing mothers need a little more), including about 2 1/2 cups of water gained from foods. Water rich foods include lettuces and other greens, cucumber and watermelon.
Relax and get your zzzz’s
Most of us are all too familiar with that fuzzy-headed feeling we have when we don’t get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for our brains to work at full capacity. Studies show that the average adult needs a minimum of seven hours of shut-eye each night for optimal brain function.
According to a 2007 Harvard Medical School study, sleep helps memories lodge themselves in the brain. You know how you can go to bed with a problem and wake up with a solution? That’s because the brain gathers separate pieces of information and weaves them into a whole idea while we asleep. The Harvard study showed that those of us who regularly log in seven hours of snooze time exhibit significantly more brain activity than those who don’t.
Taking a quick nap during the day — a power nap, if you will — can help you to retain memories as well as keep your brain sharper for a longer period of time. A power nap ideally should last about 15 minutes. Set an alarm for about 25 minutes, depending on how long it usually takes you to fall asleep. Napping for longer than 20 minutes can be counter-productive.
A power-nap can capture the benefits of the first two of the five stages in the sleep cycle.