8 Tips from Neuroscience to Unlock Your Brain’s Full Potential.
“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 –1934), Spanish pathologist, histologist, neuroscientist and Nobel laureate.
The human brain is truly astonishing.
Every single piece of knowledge that we have ever acquired is stored in the 3-pound gelatinous mass that lives in between our ears. Thanks to progressions in the field of neuroscience, we are continuously learning about how to use the brain to its full potential.
To better-understand optimal brain functioning, there are two important processes that occur naturally in all humans: neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons (the specialised nerve cells that transmit electrical impulses) are created. We now know that new neurons are continually generated throughout adulthood, and that there are many things we can do to enhance this process.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. The brain constantly rewires when we experience new activities or learn new information. Therefore, depending on how we choose to actively stimulate our faculties, we can turn this malleability into self-directed ‘neuroplasticity’ (as coined by neuroplasticity expert, Dr Jeffrey Schwartz) to enhance brain performance.
So what can you do to unlock your brain’s full potential?
Tip number 1: Fuel your brain
Through certain food intake, you can maintain your brain’s health as you age. You can even avoid or reverse general cognitive decline. The brain can only function at its optimum when it has enough energy and nutrition to process information. A good way to make sure you are getting all of the nutrition you need is to order your desired supplements from a company such as Private Label Vitamins. This way, your brain will always have the correct amount of nutrition and vitamins to function at its optimum. You may have noticed how your concentration levels, mood, and processing speed change depending on what (and if) you have eaten. Some recommended brain foods to include in your diet are:
- Wild salmon
- Cacao, minimally-processed (hint: not chocolate!)
Tip number 2: Drink water
The brain is approximately 85% water and all of its functions depend on it. As opposed to other organs, our brains do not have any way in which to store water. Water gives the brain the electrical energy for thought and memory processes, for production of hormones and neurotransmitters, for delivering nutrients and for removing toxins while we sleep.
Studies have shown that if we are only 1% dehydrated, we will likely have a 5% decrease in cognitive function. Prolonged dehydration causes brain cells to shrink in size and mass. This is most common in the elderly, many of whom tend to be chronically dehydrated over a number of years. Dehydration is also a known factor in dementia and proper hydration may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Drink a large glass of water as soon as you wake up to improve concentration and alertness. When your brain is functioning on a full reserve of water, you think faster, are more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity. Drink throughout the day and drink a large glass just before bed to ensure brain toxins are duly eliminated while you dream away.
Tip number 3: Train your brain to change your brain
Just as your brain develops based on your experiences, connections can also become weaker if you fail to engage and take part in activities. So it’s important to keep your brain active by learning (E.g. a new language, or new skills). Challenging your brain is a must, so change routines and activate your brain by using as many senses as possible. Your brain craves and loves variety!
Tip number 4: Play in the here and now
Reduce your mental load and stress. Reconnect to your inner child. Relax and enjoy life, and laugh often. Don’t focus on perceived threats, but instead try and maintain an optimistic outlook.
The practice of mindfulness encourages neuroplasticity and meditative states greatly contribute to personal fulfilment. The next time you find yourself feeling lethargic, being forgetful, and simply not able focus, attend to the richness of your here-and-now, press pause, and clear your mind. 10 minutes a day will suffice.
Tip number 5: Ban the multitasking myth
Recent neuroscience research proves multitasking is not only impossible but can actually greatly hinder performance. The brain is unable to consciously pay full attention to more than one task at the same time. Instead of multitasking try these:
- Prioritise tasks;
- Become familiar with your natural rhythms and identify when you have the most energy, mental and physical, and schedule tasks accordingly; and
- Create interruption-free time zones to work on selected tasks – turn off all notifications and minimise any distractions.
Tip number 6: Move
Physical activity is key to a healthy brain. This doesn’t have to be intense workouts, even 20 minutes of moderate exercise promotes neurogenesis. Any form of cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to every part of your body, including your brain, so try stretching, jumping, climbing stairs, power walking, squatting, or jogging.
Tip number 7: Be a social butterfly
We are social beings and cognitive function is strongly connected to brain-stimulating socialisation (note: this does not include hours of Tweeting! Attending a TWU lecture day does count though).
Stay socially active to maintain normal brain function and help stave off the onset of dementia.
Tip number 8: Doze off
We spend about one third of our life sleeping or attempting to do so. Quality sleep – and getting enough of it at the right times – is as essential to survival as food and water. Without sleep, our brain can neither form nor maintain the neural pathways that let us learn and create new memories. Sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes brain toxins that build up while we are awake.
A sleep-deprived brain works harder, but accomplishes less. It becomes more difficult to concentrate, speak clearly, and make decisions. Sleep problems are almost always involved in mental disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and even strokes.
Sleep time varies from person to person, but studies show you should always try to have a minimum of 7 hours a night.
So can ‘old dogs really learn new tricks’?
Until not so long ago it was believed that the brain’s neural network became fixed as we age. However, we now know that the brain continually morphs with learning, or repairs after injury through neuroplasticity.
We must embrace new learning opportunities to be the very best version of ourselves. Neural pathways in the brain are changed by our experiences: we are what we think and do, and connections between cells in the brain can be rewired if new things we do are repeated frequently enough.
Whilst plasticity becomes less evident as we age, it does still happen and it can be sped up.
However, neuroplasticity is impossible without mental effort and consistency. Creating a lasting neural change can take up to 3 months to really strengthen the neural reward pathways, so it’s critical to make ‘brain training’ a habit, rather than a one-off.