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Why We Think What We Think and Can We Think Smarter?

Why We Think What We Think and Can We Think Smarter?

When you’re asked to give your opinion, what do you think?

No, I mean what do you think? And how and why do you think it?

If you can answer these questions you will gain access to your cognition, which is the range of mental processes relating to the acquisition, storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information. With a deeper understanding of your cognition you can strengthen it to make yourself smarter.

What we think: something to do with our unconscious mind

What we think is easy enough to describe. If I tell you to think of a candy bar, you use your cognitive abilities to retrieve the information related to the term “candy bar.” You may remember how earlier in your life someone taught you what a candy bar was, you eventually tried a candy bar, and the pleasureful experience ingrained this memory in your mind for later retrieval. This is an example of acquisition and the storage of information.

Now, as you think about that candy bar, your memory may seem completely lucid, but you are manipulating the information in your mind based on many unconscious and conscious factors. You think about what it tastes like and looks like, but you are likely to forget about how much it costs, what is written on the package, and the promise you made to yourself about eating “healthy.” This is a perfect example of your cognitive ability to retrieve information and manipulate that information.

    In the split second after you read the word “candy bar,” you experienced every facet of cognition unconsciously, but as I took you through the process you were able to consciously experience cognition. By making our cognitive processes conscious and understanding what affects cognition we can create a life that makes us smarter.

    Let’s develop a deeper understanding of how and why we think.

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    How we think: the interaction between our brains’ neurons

    The answer to how we think is found in the neuronal connections of your brain. In your brain, you will find about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons.[1] Each neuron consists of a cell body and branch-like projections (one axon and multiple dendrites) that send and receive messages from other neurons. Neurons send messages by transmitting electrical impulses across tiny gaps called synapses. These messages and the pathways that are formed between neurons are the physical component of your cognition.

    In our first three years of life, our brain has up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood.[2] These synapses help accelerate our learning process so that we can adapt to our environment as quickly as possible. Some of our synaptic connections are dictated by our genes, which provide the blueprint for our brains. However, our environment and how we adapt to it ultimately determine the neural connections in the brain.

    For example, when I mentioned the word “candy bar,” your neural connections that are related to the term “candy bar” fired together and produced a memory of a past experience of a candy bar. If you have never heard of a candy bar before, your mind may fire up neural connections that have to do with a bar of gold or a liquor bar. But there would be no relevant experience of a candy bar stored in your brain. However, once you have a candy bar, that experience is stored and a new neural pathway in the brain is formed. That new neural pathway may be triggered to fire the next time someone mentions a candy bar, providing you with a little taste of the pleasure or pain you experienced the last time you had one.

    This example explains the “what” behind the formation of our cognitive abilities.[3] Neurons wire together and form intricate connections, and fire together to convey a thought, feeling, memory, or other type of experience, but why does this happen?

    Why we think: our ability to survive

    Although we can break cognition down into complex topics that are hotly debated, let’s keep it simple. Cognition is necessary for our survival. The ability to acquire, store, manipulate, and retrieve information allows us to adapt to the environment we live in. This ability is shared by most, if not all, animals that have brains.

    We can consciously change the way we react to our unconscious mind.

    Consciousness, on the other hand, allows us to manipulate cognition with our intention. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, argue that this freewill we think we have over our cognition is just an illusion. But a group of researchers conducted four experiments that may provide evidence against Sam Harris’s contention.[4] These researchers found that we can consciously control the way unconscious stimuli affects our behavior. This means that you can completely change your reaction to unconscious stimuli like what happens in your mind when you read the word “candy bar.”

    We can easily rewire our neural connections to create the feeling of disgust rather than excitement when we think of a candy bar. We can also use the power of intention, along with nutrition and environmental changes, to strengthen our cognition.

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    How to enhance our cognition to become smarter

    If you think cognition can’t be trained, think again! There’re plenty of things you can do to enhance your cognition to become smarter.

    1. Change your external environment to facilitate how you think.

    Your environment has much more power over your cognitive function than you think. Your brain is using your senses to pick up information from your environment. This information triggers specific thoughts, feelings, and reactions; you don’t notice it until you experience the thought, feeling, or reaction. This suggests that one of the most powerful ways to strengthen your cognition is by changing the stimuli of your environment.

    When it comes to hacking your environment, a simple principle you can follow is to make the things that you should do easier than the things you shouldn’t do.

    For example, to make sure that I read for an hour every day, I put the books that I want to read on my bedside table, within arms reach. When I wake up, all I have to do is move my arm to the side, grab a book, open it, and start reading. This is much easier than reaching for my phone, which I put in the room where I do most of my work in.

    Other ways to hack your environment to increase your cognition are to use rosemary essential oil, listen to music, and experience nature. The smell of rosemary essential oil has been found to increase alertness and quality of memory, so diffusing it in your workplace may help boost your cognitive performance.

    Music has potent effects on our brain as well. The effect of music is so potent that it is being used in the treatment of cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.[5] Researchers suggest that the positive effects of music include a calming affect due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.[6]

    Another potent cognitive enhancer is nature. Studies have shown that simply looking at a picture of nature stimulates the vagus nerve, which improves mood and self-esteem and reduces blood pressure.[7]

    But what happens when we can’t change our environment? You’re not at home, you’ve run out of rosemary oil, the only sound you hear is a jackhammer from the construction workers on the street, and the closest tree is miles away. What can you do?

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    2. Develop self-awareness and be conscious of your thoughts.

    You can use self-awareness to thrive in any environment. Self-awareness is your conscious knowledge of your own character, feelings, motives, and desires. By developing self-awareness, you can become conscious of the feelings, motives, and desires that are stealing your cognition away from things that are more important.

      To develop self-awareness, direct your focus with specific questions. Dr. Relly Nadler suggests asking yourself five simple questions:[8]

      • What am I thinking?
      • What am I feeling?
      • What do I want now?
      • How am I getting in my way?
      • What do I need to do differently now?

      These questions will help you shift your focus and find a better way to act now and in the future. You can also use these questions to assess past experiences so that you can plan a new action for the future.

      Using the questions in this way can help you use your present cognition to enhance your future cognition.

      3. Change your internal environment by keeping your body and mind healthy.

      You cannot outthink poor nutrition; no matter how peaceful your environment is, you will always have poor cognitive function if your body and mind aren’t healthy.

      For example, if you eat candy bars and other refined foods every day, your body will be in a chronic state of inflammation as it tries to save your cells from oxidative damage due to free radicals and other oxidants found in the refined foods.

      Eating more fruits and vegetables can increase cognitive function, especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale. When we chew cruciferious vegetables, a compound called sulforaphane is created. This compound is designed to protect the plant from small predators. In humans, it sets off a cascade of processes in the body that detoxify and protect the cells from oxidative damage.

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      Supplementing with vitamin B1 and coconut oil also help boost cognitive function by ensuring that your neurons have sufficient energy.[9] Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides, which provide an alternative fuel source for brain cells and may prevent neural cell death. Vitamin B1 helps your neurons use energy sources, like sugar, more efficiently.

      To prevent cognitive loss, especially if you have Alzheimer’s disease, it may be best to supplement with vitamin B3 and curcumin from turmeric. All of the other B vitamins also play an essential role in preventing the loss of cognitive function and enhancing cognitive function as well.[10]

      Physical activity and learning improve your cognition for free.

      But before you start adding these supplements to your shopping cart, it is important to note that the most effective methods of improving cognition are free. These methods are physical activity and learning. Increasing your physical activity can improve brain volume and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%[11] and learning a new skill prevents the loss of synaptic connections and brain volume as we age by forming new ones.

      Go to a movement class, practice a sport, or learn a new sport, and you will increase your activity levels and learn something new at the same time. Your brain will thank you by being sharper and more efficient than it ever was before.

      If you experience a rapid change in your behavior and/or notice no effect from making the changes suggested in this article, you may have something else going on. So it is important to consult your doctor and get the proper referral.

      Practice the 3 simple ways and you’ll get smarter.

      By changing the stimuli in your environment, developing self-awareness, and nourishing your inner environment with cognitive boosting foods, you can strengthen your cognition and live a life that consistently makes you happier, healthier, and smarter.

      Reference

      More by this author

      Tyler Ardizzone

      Pain Relief Specialist, Personal Trainer, & Bodywork Therapist

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      Published on November 23, 2020

      How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

      How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

      Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

      Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

      Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

      Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

      Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

      Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

      Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

      In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

      Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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      After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

      What can we learn from this historical lesson?

      1. Focus on the Consequences

      Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

      So was Moscow not an important target after all?

      Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

      When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

      • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
      • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
      • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

      The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

      This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

      2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

      Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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      Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

      If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

      Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

      This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

      Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

      • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
      • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
      • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
      • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

      Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

      3. Ask for Advice

      Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

      Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

      A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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      Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

      4. Beware of Biased Advice

      Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

      For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

      • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
      • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
      • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
      • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
      • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

      However, most purchases are unnecessary.

      Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

      Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

      After all,

      • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
      • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
      • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
      • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
      • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

      There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

      Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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      Bottom Line

      It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

      You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

      Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

      Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

      Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

      Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

      Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

      More Tips on Thinking Clearly

      Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
      [2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
      [3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
      [4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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