38 Ways To Get Smarter About Your Brain
As scientists probe the mysteries inside our heads, their discoveries are providing new insights into how we can all sharpen our mental machinery
- YOUR BRAIN IS FAT
In fact, your brain is the fattiest organ in your body, consisting of a minimum of 60 per cent fat. That’s why a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is vital for brain and overall body health. “Fat stabilizes the cell walls in the brain and carries, absorbs and stores fat-soluble vitamins in your bloodstream,” explains Brandon Brock, DCM, a chiropractic neurologist and the medical director of Innovative Health and Wellness in Dallas, USA. “It also reduces inflammation and helps the immune system function properly.”
- WE CAN GET SMARTER AS WE GET OLDER
Rawan Tarawneh, MD, an assistant professor of neurology in the division of cognitive neurology at Ohio State University, points out that although some mental processes decline as we age, not all do. “Some of our brain functions—such as short-term memory, processing speed and visuospatial functions—show some decline with healthy ageing,” she says. “On the other hand, language functions tend to remain well preserved as we get older.” In fact, research from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that arithmetic skills don’t peak until age 50, and vocabulary and cumulative intelligence (all the facts and knowledge we’ve acquired) peak even later, into our early 70s.
- BIGGER ISN’T NECESSARILY BETTER
Comparing the brains of great thinkers, writers and mathematicians posthumously hasn’t yielded conclusive evidence that the size of the brain has a correlation to intelligence.
- IQ CAN GO UP—OR DOWN
Although the origins of intelligence are still being researched, it does seem clear that your IQ, or intelligence quotient, can change throughout your life. In fact, some experts argue that there’s no such thing as IQ at all. Instead, experiences and learning, as well as the testing itself, can change over time.
- INTELLIGENCE MIGHT START WITH IGNORING DISTRACTIONS
A study from the University of Rochester found that people with higher IQs were better at detecting the movements of small objects on a screen but worse at detecting movements of larger background objects. This may be because in nature, large movements such as the wind in the trees are irrelevant, but the harder-to-see animal that’s about to pounce is essential. In our info-laden modern world, the ability to focus only on what’s important might give some people an edge.
- THE BRAIN CAN ADAPT
In the same way that someone who loses both hands can learn to pickthings up with his or her toes, the brain can ‘recruit’ different parts of itself to compensate for damaged areas when needed, a phenomenon known as brain plasticity. For example, experiments have shown that people who were born blind use the visual parts of their brains for tasks other than seeing.
- A GROWN-UP BODY DOESN’T ALWAYS HOUSE A MATURE MIND
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order thinking: judgment, problem solving, decision making, complex planning and impulse control, Tarawneh says. But that part of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25.
STRANGE BUT TRUE
- THE BRAIN DEVELOPS BACKWARD
The brain is built from the bottom up, with simpler neural connections forming first. It also matures from the back of the head to the front, with the prefrontal cortex the last to finish developing. In the first few years of life, more than one million new neural connections form every second.
- OUR BRAINS ARE SHRINKING
Paleoanthropological research proves our brains are about 10 per cent smaller than those of Cro Magnons, who lived 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why. One theory is that smaller brains are more efficient.
- THE BRAIN FEELS NO PAIN ...
Ever wonder how brain surgeons are able to perform surgeries on patients who are awake? Even though the brain contains layers of coverings and blood vessels that have pain receptors, the brain itself has zero, says Beth McQuiston, MD, a neurologist and a medical director at Abbott Laboratories in Illinois, USA. Patients may still be given a nerve block and/or a local anaesthetic during surgery to protect the surrounding tissue from pain.
- … AND IT’S GREEDY
Your brain may account for only about two per cent of your body weight, but it uses approximately 20 per cent of your body’s oxygen and calorie intake.
- TRUE LOVE LIGHTS YOU UP
Being in love isn’t an abstract emotion. Your brain knows when it’s happening. “In people who are romantically in love, functional MRI brain scans can show activity where dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, is present,” says McQuiston.
- YOU CAN—AND SHOULD—TRAIN YOURSELF TO BE HAPPY
Our brains are predisposed to see the glass as half-empty. This ‘negativity bias’ might have helped our ancestors recognize threats to their survival. But in today’s world, our brains benefit from a more positive outlook. In a small study, participants who practised being mindful about positive experiences increased the amount of grey matter they had in the brain regions involved in learning, memory and emotion regulation.
- YOU AND YOUR BESTIES MIGHT BE ON THE SAME WAVELENGTH
Scientists who scanned a group of graduate students found that the brains of close friends responded in remarkably similar ways as they viewed a series of short videos: the same ebbs and swells of attention and distraction, the same peaking of reward processing and the same telltale signs of boredom.
- MUSICIANS CAN MIND-MELD TOO
There’s a scientific reason why the musicians in your favourite bands blend harmoniously. A team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin used electrodes to record the brainwaves of 16 pairs of guitarists as they played the same musical sequence. Even though the two individuals in each pair played different parts, their brainwaves synchronized. “This study suggests that there’s a neural blueprint for coordinating actions with others,” explains Brock.
- THINKING IS POWERFUL—LITERALLY
“Neurons in the brain make enough electricity each day to run a light bulb [about 20 watts],” Brock reports.
- YOU ARE MORE EFFICIENT THAN A COMPUTER
A robot with a processor that’s as intelligent as the human brain would require at least 10 megawatts to operate—about 5,00,000 times the amount of energy the human brain needs. And the brain works faster than the world’s greatest computer. “The information going to your brain from your arms and legs travels at 241 km per hour,” says Brock.
- ‘BRAIN FREEZE’ IS REAL
When your brain senses a drop of temperature on your palate, it leaps to action. “Your brain quickly increases blood pressure in an effort to tell you to slow down to prevent unwanted changes due to temperature,” says Brock. It’s that increased pressure that can make you feel momentarily uncomfortable.
- ... AND SO IS INTUITION
When you think you have a ‘gut feeling’, are you just imagining it? Turns out, there’s something to it. According to research, hunches are the result of our brains’ receiving and processing information so fast that our conscious minds don’t even realize it.
- SOME MENTAL DISORDERS MAY HAVE THE SAME CAUSE
In a study that reviewed the brain scans of nearly 16,000 people, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found a pattern among psychiatric conditions—including schizophrenia, depression and addiction—that previously had been considered very different.
Patients with those illnesses all had less grey matter than healthy individuals in the same three brain structures. What’s more, the affected parts of their brains are all associated with higher-level executive functions such as planning, decision making and resisting counterproductive impulses. Researchers are now exploring the possibility that these disorders could have similar causes—and treatments.
- BRAIN HEALTH MAY START IN THE GUT
Science is uncovering more and more information about how the bacteria in the gut, known as the microbiome, affect the brain. “Animal studies indicate that gut bacteria may affect everything—from mood to our response to stress,” says fitness expert and dietician Erin Palinski-Wade. “A diet rich in prebiotics and probiotics may help to alter gut health to fight depression and anxiety.”
- MANY PARTS OF YOUR BRAIN ARE ‘AWAKE’ DURING SLEEP
“Even when we are sleeping, areas such as the frontal cortex, which controls our higher-level thinking and awareness, and the somatosensory cortex, which allows us to sense our surroundings, are active,” says Tarawneh.
THINGS THAT ARE GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN
Brain activity during dreaming increases to a similar level as when we are awake, says behavioural sleep therapist Richard Shane, PhD. That may help you solve problems and boost your ability to cope with struggles and stress. A Harvard Medical School study showed that participants who achieved REM sleep (when dreaming usually happens) were better able to detect positive emotions in other people, while those who did not were more sensitive to negative emotions. The study’s author suggests that dreams help the brain process negative emotions safely. If we fail to dream, then wefail to let go of these emotions and are left in a constant state of anxiety.
- GUM CHEWING
In a 2013 study in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers had two groups of people listen to a 30-minute recording that included a sequence of numbers. After listening, the participants were asked to remember the sequence. But only one group chewed gum—and people in that group had higher accuracy rates and faster reaction times than the non-gum chewers. The researchers say that chewing gum increases the flow of oxygen to regions of the brain responsible for attention.
- SOCIAL INTERACTION
A 2015 review of previously published research showed that less frequent social interaction was associated with a higher incidence of new cases of dementia. Volunteering, visiting with friends and family and staying active in social groups can help keep your brain healthy as you age.
- VIDEO GAMES
A recent review of research found that gamers show improvements in the brain regions involved in attention. There’s also evidence that playing video games can increase the size and efficiency of the regions of the brain that control visuospatial skills. Researchers are even developing video games that can modify regions of the brain that control mood—there’s one video game designed to treat depression. But be careful—video games can also be addictive because of the structural changes they cause in the brain’s reward system.
As if you needed another excuse: Sex may help your brain think better as you age. A new study found that adults ages 50 to 83 who were sexually active scored better on cognitive tests than those who weren’t. Sex may also reduce anxiety and depression and help you sleep, which benefits brain health as well.
Studies show that time off helps you be more productive. “Our brains are not machines that can work endlessly without a glitch,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, author of Depression
in Later Life and a professor at Adelphi University, New York. Downtime “allows the regulatory systems of your brain to chill out,” she says.
“Brain-mapping studies show that meditation reduces anxiety, depression and stress,” Serani says. “Meditation also sharpens attention and improves cognitive functioning.” One study showed that a long-term meditation practice can help save your grey matter from atrophying with age, perhaps because it stimulates the formation of synapses or because it reduces the harmful immune response caused by chronic stress. Another study found that meditation could also improve concentration and memory. “Ancient knowledge has always told us that meditation is great for the mind and now new research is proving it,” says Dr P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke
University School of Medicine, one of the pioneers of scientific studies on meditation. A large review of the effects of meditation on the brain, led by Doraiswamy, concluded that meditation positively affects multiple brain processes, including strengthening brain circuits, slowing down ageing and boosting brain-friendly chemicals. “Moreover, it reduces stress and improves memory, alertness and attention. It also makes you more empathetic towards your colleagues and peers,” says Doraiswamy. He also highlights a trailblazing study led by The Chopra Center at Southern California, where a group of individuals who were meditating were put through a series of tests to study the impacts at a cellular level—the study showed that meditation profoundly changes the expression of genes and improves many aspects of mental well-being.
“There’s a long history of research showing that laughter increases feelgood hormones dopamine and serotonin,” Serani says. This, in turn, reduces pain and improves resilience.
In one study of adults ages 65 and older, those who exercised four times a week cut the risk of dementia in half, compared with those who either weren’t active at all or were active only one day a week. Plus, “exercise at every age has been shown to improve memory, concentration, and other cognitive functions,” says Palinski-Wade. This appears to be linked to an increase in circulation, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain while also helping remove waste. “Exercise does amazing things for your brain and protects you from various diseases,” Doraiswamy says. Researchers at Duke University studied 200 people between the ages of 25 and 50 and found that exercise improved a person’s decision making. Other studies show that exercise releases up to 25 different body chemicals, increasesblood supply to the brain and encourages the production of nerve growth factors. “The latter enables the nerve cells in the brain to make more connections, making your brain sharper and work faster,” he adds.
- HEALTHY EATING
A recent study found that older adults who followed the Mediterranean diet—rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and fish—retained more brain cells than older adults who didn’t follow the diet. Another study found that compounds in extra-virgin olive oil, an important part of the Mediterranean diet, “may reduce brain inflammation as well as prevent the build-up of plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, which are suspected to contribute to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s,”
Palinski-Wade says. In addition, “DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids from salmon and other fish have been found to be protective to the brain and contribute to improved memory function in older adults,” she says.
THINGS THAT ARE BAD FOR YOUR BRAIN
- SLEEP DEPRIVATION
In repeated studies of participants who went 24 hours without sleep, “cognitive functioning and response speed were equivalent or worse than if they had a blood alcohol content of 0.10 per cent
[0.02 per cent higher than the legal limit for drunk driving],” Shane says. (The National Institute of Medicine estimates that drowsy driving is responsible for nearly 20 per cent of serious car-crash injuries.) And you don’t need to be up for 24 hours straight to be impaired. Other research has shown that the cumulative effect of consistently getting six or fewer hours of sleep can lead to similar results. According to Doraiswamy, “For a long time, it was thought that our brains rest when we sleep, but research from the University of Rochester found that the brain is more active when we are asleep. They discovered a new system in the brain that comes alive when we are sleeping, called the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system removes all the by-products of the day’s activities. When people don’t sleep, the trash accumulates as proteins that could lead to future illnesses. We need an optimal of seven hours of sleep a day, or else the brain is unable to clear out trash, increasing your risk for future cognitive diseases.”
It’s not because drinking kills large numbers of brain cells, as is commonly believed. Rather, alcohol significantly diminishes the production of new cells. A 30-year-long study from the United Kingdom found that having as few as two to three drinks per day does longterm damage to your brainpower.
Although your noggin needs glucose to function, too much has been shown to have detrimental effects. “In teens, just one soda per day was associated with a decline in test scores,” says Palinski-Wade. Too much sugar may also accelerate ageing of cells, according to Harvard Medical School.
Brain scans of people with common migraines or migraines with aura (symptoms that occur before the onset of the headache) found that they were 34 to 68 per cent more likely to experience white-matter brain lesions than those who did not have migraines, according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen. Some tiny brain lesions are nothing to worry about, but others may be associated with multiple sclerosis, stroke, tumours and other diseases.
“Multitasking hijacks your frontal lobes, the brain’s higher-order thinking centre,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, the founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. “You think you are doing two or more tasks at the same time, but your brain is actually switching rapidly from one task to the other,” causing you to take longer to do each one. Multitasking reduces creativity, increases errors, lowers your ability to focus on what is most important and increases problems with sleep, stress and memory, she says.
“Have you ever wondered about the connection between obesity and the brain? When you’re obese, your metabolic system is irregular and research suggests that the higher your weight, the smaller the size of the memory centres of the brain. Newer studies also say that there may be a correlation between obesity and your risk of future brain conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. So make sure your body weight and BMI are in the healthy range. If not, consult a physician,” says Doraiswamy.