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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

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

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      Last Updated on June 6, 2019

      Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

      Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

      In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

      Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

      Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

      Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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         A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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        The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

        “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

        In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

        The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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          A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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          Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

          “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

          When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

          The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

          As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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          “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

          Silence relieves stress and tension.

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            It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

            A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

            “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

            Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

            Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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              The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

              Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

              But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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              Summation

              Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

              Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

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