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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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      Published on July 7, 2020

      Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

      Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

      Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

      Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

      The Skinny on Mental Workouts

      Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

      Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

      1. Improved Memory

      After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

      2. Reduced Stress Levels

      Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

      3. Improved Work Performance

      Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

      4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

      As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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      Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

      Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

      The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

      1. Brainstorming

      One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

      If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

      2. Dancing

      Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

      Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

      3. Learning a New Language

      Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

      With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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      4. Developing a Hobby

      Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

      If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

      For example:

      • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
      • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
      • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
      • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

      Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

      5. Board Games

      Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

      Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

      6. Card Games

      Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

      A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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      7. Puzzles

      Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

      Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

      8. Playing Music

      Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

      Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

      What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

      9. Meditating

      Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

      Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

      • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
      • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
      • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
      • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
      • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
      • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

      10. Deep Conversation

      There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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      Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

      11. Cooking

      When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

      If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

      12. Mentorship

      Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

      Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

      Final Thoughts

      Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

      To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

      More Tips for Training Your Brain

      Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

      Reference

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