Sure I can’t force this article into existence through sheer willpower – I actually have to sit down and write it – but I have heard of a myriad of examples of people using their mind to accomplish amazing feats. Tibetan monks and yogis are said to be able to meditate to the point where they do not need food or water for extended periods of time, and non-meditating people have been shown to be able to heal themselves with the so-called placebo effect. Can the average person, who hasn’t been tricked by pseudo-pharmaceuticals or hasn’t been training for years, train their brain? Let’s take a look.
More Brain Hack Than Training, But It’s Something
Music as described by Leo Tolstoy is the shorthand of emotion, and if you were to extrapolate from that, silence must be the shorthand of boredom. Music has the uncanny and strange ability to shorten the perception of time and manipulate our emotional states. To prove it, I’d like to ask you a question: what do banks, elevators and customer service lines all have in common? Yup, corny, mellow jazz music playing at a moderate volume. Not only does Muzak (as it’s alternatively and hilariously called) calm raw nerves which most customers have when on a customer service line, or waiting behind a labyrinth of ropes at the bank, it has also been shown to slow down Mall patrons’ walking pace to facilitate browsing.
No, this isn’t a level in a video game, it’s a technic used by memory champions (and yes, that’s a thing) to recall long and often complex lists of items. How do they do it? Although completely counterintuitive, they actually make up more things to remember. Basically, they visualize themselves traveling through a familiar space, with the items they are trying to remember in the space which they are walking through. Say you want to remember a long grocery list, you walk through a familiar space, like your home, and see the milk on the counter, the bread on the counter, the eggs on the counter – wait, I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to do it.
The Memory Game
So, everybody goes on and on about how exercise is good for you, how it helps you stay healthy and avoid dying a horrible death, but almost no one talks about the value of mental exercise. Oh, they do? According to the National Institute on Aging, staying mentally active can actually lower your risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Not only that, but constantly playing memory games can help increase working memory and processing speed. There are a myriad of brain training apps available both for Android and iOS smart devices that will boost your brain with memory games but will also help you track your intended goals. They help develop processing speed, focus, attention, and memory. Luminosity and Elevate are two of the most popular brain training apps available for both OS users.
The Memory Monster
If you want to be a monster of recollection, then you will just have to repeat things – again and again and again. Most people have a hard time connecting names with faces, most often remembering the face but not the name. A trick to help you is to try to repeat the person’s name when you’re introduced instead of just saying, “Nice to meet you.” If you have a chance to speak to them for a little bit longer, you can try to repeat their name a few times during the conversation – just try to avoid repeating it too many times. “Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, what are you having for lunch, buddy?” might make you seem:
- Possessed, or
- A little drunk (which you usually are, anyway).
Stress is one of the most significant mentally clouding emotions. So, by practicing mindfulness, meditation or even just some quiet personal time, you can elevate your cognitive abilities in a very short period. The reason stress is such a strong cognitive inhibitor is because of a hormone called cortisol, which tells the body to restrict all non-essential functions that could be an obstacle for the fight or flight response. And guess what? Higher order thinking is exactly that: a non-essential function for survival function. This nasty little bastard called cortisol sticks around too, making your heart beat harder and faster, restricting your cognitive abilities, and weakening your immune system. Worry not, though, because 20 minutes of cardio, 10 deep breaths or a bit of meditation will bring you back to the cognitive beast you were before you spilled coffee all over your lap.
Learn Something New
The brain if full of neural pathways, and scientists have found that when we learn new skills, techniques or languages, these pathways modify themselves as new ones are created. This is called neuroplasticity. Although the most neuroplasticity is observed during our early developmental years – and in the past, scientists believed that adult brains are immutable – recent research has shown even adult brains are capable of creating new synaptic or non-synaptic neural pathways (synaptic pathways are biological ones; non-synaptic are psychological/behavioral ones). The more new neural pathways you create as an adult, the easier the brain will establish even more new pathways. So, even the brain follows the saying: “No pain, no gain.” No, that’s not it… “Don’t look a gifted horse in the mouth”? Oh, “practice makes perfect.” Look at you, Mr. Smarty-pants.
Yes, to train your brain, it’s sometimes necessary to train your body. I know that you prefer to marathon watch Game of Thrones while eating Triple Chocolate Cake with vanilla ice-cream, but working out can go as far as rewiring your brain. Exercise (could you please stop making a gagging face every time I say exercise?) increases blood flow which in turn oxygenates the brain more effectively and also releases a cocktail of feel-good hormones which help with mental sharpness and focus. Hold on to your love handles, though, because the benefits go a little bit deeper and unforeseen: exercise can even grow new brain cells. OK, to be fair, it can in mice. In various studies carried out all over the world, researchers noticed that mice that were forced to exercise, or allowed to exercise instead of being sedentary, had a noticeable increase in mitochondrial activity in the brain, or in less scientific terms: grew freaking brain cells.
Are there any other brain exercises that you enjoy doing? Let me know in the comments section below.