We spend so much time focusing on how we treat our bodies — to eat right, get enough sleep, chill out (as much as possible) and of course, squeeze in regular sweat sessions. But what about exercising our brain? Just because we use it a lot by pure necessity day-to-day, doesn’t mean that we’re treating it right, or, well, making it better. And even if you’re still in school or you’re in a challenging career where you think so much you swear your brain hurts, that doesn’t mean your brain is completely satisfied.
And there are surprising ways that you could be hurting how your brain operates: “What you do as an adult or what you do on a regular basis, has huge impact on how you feel and how you act — and your behavior boosts, or minimizes brain function, too,” says Dr. Daniel Amen, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics in California and author of Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. “One of the most important things to know is that if you are unhealthy from a physical standpoint —say, if you are overweight or you have hypertension, diabetes, or consume too much alcohol or do drugs — all these things can drain your brain and atrophy it in a negative way, which then impairs how it functions.”
The upside? While how your brain works is somewhat genetically coded, it also has a lot to do with how you use it. “The child-brain is less precise and more fluid than the adult brain, which is able to bring a lot of fire-power to problem solving quickly,” says Dr. Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychiatrist and author of The Female Brain. “Adult brains have strengthened certain connections over many years — and deleted other connections that are still present in child brain.” What’s your missing link? Try these easy tricks to boost your brainpower.
Put. Down. The. iPhone. Scrolling through Instagram, emailing your boss, talking your BFF off a breakup ledge and reading this article. Whoa. “Always being engaged is bad for your brain because just like your body, it needs time to rest,” says Amen. “You can overdo it.” One study from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that 1,100 British employees who multi-tasked with electronic media showed a greater decrease in IQ than from smoking pot or losing a good night’s sleep. (Most likely because they aren’t really multi-tasking — simply doing several tasks subpar.)
But then pick it up again. “Because you can use it wisely to play some brain-enhancing games (like Words With Friends) which may increase your vocabulary — which you can then use in everyday speech — as opposed to, for example, getting hooked on Angry Birds,” says Brizendine.
“Playing mind games on smartphones could help you get better a certain task — but this may, or may not, transfer to increased brain power at other tasks.” So, don’t think a few apps are enough to make you Einstein: “Just doing word games is not nearly as powerful as more engaging practices like making prettier spaces or learning new dance moves,” says Amen. And so….
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Buy Real Simple — and redecorate (or just reorganize a closet). Who knew spring cleaning or finally swapping your decrepit Ikea furniture from 2001 for a new setup could make you smarter? “When you redo your home — and think in terms of patterns and colors, you are using a completely different part of the brain than you usually do — the posterior part versus the frontal area.” Translate that into overhauling your wardrobe? Score.
Learn to speak Russian. Or whatever it is that you don’t feel you’re naturally good at. Which is probably exactly what you steer clear of. Think you stink at learning a new language? Or can’t for the life of you figure out how to sync all your gadgets or that new program at work? Get. On. It. “When we have weaknesses or tasks that we don’t do very often, it’s even more important to incorporate them into our lives,” says Amen. “All the areas of the brain are connected — so it’s stronger over all if the individual parts are stronger because better connections are made throughout.”
Get (a little) lazier. While ODing on your iPhone is the most common culprit of multi-tasking, you can do it in all areas of your life — as in, in real life, too. And while obviously you can’t drop the ball on everything, you can take it down a notch here and there. Keep doing it, and suddenly, you’ll be able to do it all — naturally. “Enhancing adult brain power for memory and problem-solving can be achieved by reducing the number of things you ask your brain to do at one time,” says Brizendine. “In other words, multi-tasking too much is a no-no for enhancing brain power.” The maximum a brain can actively focus on? Brizendine says to aim to keep it to two activities, because as soon as you start to do the third, your brain must drop one of the others.
Be like Bruce Lee. And take up martial arts. “Learning complex moves and sequences like those in martial arts has been shown in studies to enhance the matter in the frontal lobe, which strengthens the brain because it increases the gray matter [which is actually pinkish tan in color] in the brain — found in the regions responsible for muscle control and sensory perception,” says Amen.
Or, hit the dance floor. It turns out that those C-list celebs must be a little smarter than we think for going on DWTS. “Learning dance moves strengthens the brain in the same way,” says Amen. “If you are, for example, figuring out dance steps, you are using both aerobic exercise plus new learning, which work together in a really positive way for you body and your brain.”
Not into either? Try a yoga hybrid like Ki Power Vinyasa, an intense yoga and martial arts hybrid. Or even solitary stuff that’s new and challenging (so, running, where you can totally zone out, won’t cut it). “The goal is to build new and stronger connections in the brain so that they fire offer more powerful signals,” says Amen. Once again, knowledge is power — literally.