Get Smarter: Improve your brainpower

Do you regularly do puzzles, brain-teasers or even brain training?

I’ll bet you probably think that you are improving your mind by doing so. Well actually, brain training is one of the few things that science has shown does not work to improve your mind. It only really helps your ability to do the very specific task that you have been testing yourself on (Scientific American).

What about IQ? The Intelligence Quotient lumps together different types of intelligence into one number –g-. While IQ is correlated to academic success, income and health, to determine intelligence by this system remains flawed as explained by The Independent. Instead, intelligence has been categorised either into fluid or crystallised; where crystallised intelligence is the facts and information that our brains hold, while fluid intelligence is our ability to learn new information and utilise it, and it is this type of intelligence that can be improved upon (Scientific American Guest Post).

 

So what can we do to improve our brainpower? Here are a few things backed by at least some science that has been shown to have a positive impact.

 

1. Watch what you eat
From studies that the New Scientist provides a nice summary of, specific compounds that have been found to increase brainpower include choline, tyrosine, anti-oxidants, vitamin B and famously omega-3. The first two are needed for neuro-transmitters essential for strengthening connections in the brain slowing memory loss. Anti-oxidants, particularly B-carotene and vitamins C and E, are found in a variety of fruit and vegetables and have been shown to improve cognitive skills, and the omega-3 species docohexaenoic acid (DHA) can help stave off dementia. Choline is found in eggs, the amino acid tyrosine is found in dairy foods and omega-3 can be found in oily fish such as tuna, salmon and some nuts. Vitamin B was found in a study linking a high fibre diet to increased cognition. For dessert have some juicy blueberries as the flavonoids in them also strengthen connections and yes, you are allowed to have that coffee, it too will help (Fast Company), especially if you are still feeling groggy and trying to shake it off in the mornings. As with all foods and their nutrients if you are pregnant or have any allergies make sure to check with your GP first.

 

2. Exercise your body and your mind
It comes to no surprise that one of best things you can do for yourself is exercise; a good mix of cardio and strength training. But it is also excellent for your brain. Exercise has been shown to improve the minds of older people and in another study (as the New Scientist explains) 10-11 year old kids who exercised 3-4 times a week had a noticeable improvement in their grades.

In my previous blog post The Science of Yoga and Meditation, I outline the benefits of yoga and meditation on the brain. They re-shape the brain increasing brain cells for self-awareness and increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex, which in turn increases attention and focus. Meditation can actually improve memory recall in eight weeks (Fast Company). In a rather contradictory fashion, it has been discovered that meditation works by slowing our brains down.

It is also a good idea to keep working on your memory. Various techniques such as using mnemonics can help. Some studies have shown that actually working on your memory does improve it (New Scientist Mind Expanding) and when you are working either on your memory or not, it certainly pays to decrease all distractions around you. Be more attentive and discipline yourself to focus upon the task at hand.

 

3. Sleep
Everyone needs their time in the Land of Nod and everybody knows that lack of sleep will slow down the brain’s abilities. Science has now proven this as during sleep your brain processes new memories and practices new skills. If you have been awake for 21 hours then this is similar to being drunk. So enjoy your duvet and pillow a little bit more (New Scientist).

 

4. Tap into your circadian rhythms
It can take someone anything between 30 minutes to 4 hours to shake off morning grogginess (it certainly feels like 4 hours for me!) so avoid high intensity work at this time as well as close to midnight. Ideally the best time to do hard work is from mid-morning to noon and from 4pm- 10pm. You will also want to ensure that your core body temperature is at 37 degrees celsius as studies have shown that temperature can affect attention, reasoning and reaction times (New Scientist).

 

5. Burn some rosemary oil
The author of this BBC article was highly sceptical over how inhaling rosemary oil can affect the mind, but if you read the article you will find he was won over. An experiment was conducted at Northumbria University where 60 older volunteers were tested in a room infused with either lavender oil (which is associated with inducing sleep) or rosemary oil or no scent at all. Any comments referring to smells were dismissed as irrelevant associated with a previous experiment using that room. They found that those in the room exposed to rosemary oil did significantly better than those who were tested in the standard/no scent room, and interestingly those that were exposed to lavender did significantly worse in comparison to those in the standard room. By analysing the blood, they found chemicals of the rosemary oil in it. They suspect it is the chemical 1,8 cineole that maybe responsible.

 

6. Seek out adventure, challenges and meet new people
Andrea Kuszewski in her guest blog post for the Scientific American provides a very detailed article about true and tried methods for boosting the mind giving a whole different set of recommendations, and she certainly proves her point thoroughly by referencing key landmark studies. First off she admits that brain training does nothing for the brain but simply improves on the task at hand. In order to improve your fluid intelligence, you need to seek novelty. Of the Big Five traits- OCEAN (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism), it is being open to new experiences that correlates with IQ and enables new synaptic connections to be made in the brain. Having those new experiences increases your dopamine levels and helps focus on the task. You need to make sure that you challenge yourself; do one of your usual tasks the difficult way, and importantly network. By exposing yourself to new people, you make yourself open to those new experiences.

Learning a musical instrument is an excellent way to improve the mind. As written previously in a blog post music improves memory, multi-tasking, co-ordination, attention and brain processing (The Science of Music). Learning a new language too has benefits for the brain as it slows down cognitive decline (The Atlantic) and increases attention span.

 

Now that the science has spoken… to some degree at least(!) it is clear what needs to be down, so help your brain along with these handy tips and keep your mind fresh and sharp.

Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: http://independent.academia.edu/DanaeDodge https://www.linkedin.com/pub/danae-dodge/9b/868/389 I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: https://plus.google.com/communities/115424956261446503473