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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 March 30, 2020

      How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

      How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

      You may have heard someone say they are “totally right brained” or that they’re “a left brained person.”

      There is a pervasive myth that’s been making its rounds for over a century: people have two hemispheres of their brains, and if they have a dominant left brain, they’re more analytical; and if they have a dominant right brain, they are more creative.

      Before we go debunking this theory and then giving some tips for how people can access their creative brain centers, let’s first take a look at where the left brain/right brain lateralization theory comes from.

      The Left Brain/Right Brain Lateralization Theory

      In the 1800s, scientists discovered that when patients injured one side of their brains, certain skills were lost.[1] Scientists linked those different skills to one side of the brain or the other. Thus began the left brain/right brain myth that continues to this day.

      Then, in the 1960s and 70s, Roger W. Sperry led 16 operations that cut the corpus callosum (the largest region that connects both brain hemispheres together) in order to try to treat patients’ epilepsy. Sperry wrote about the differences in the two hemispheres as a result of those surgeries.[2]

      Sperry’s work was popularized in 1973 with a New York Times article about his lateralization theory—that people were either right brained (read: logical) or left brained (read: creative). From here, Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work and numerous other publications spread the right brain/left brain myth.

      Debunking the Right Brain/Left Brain Myth

      If anything, the lateralization theory of the brain is a gross exaggeration. It is true that people have two hemispheres of their brains. It is also true that there are differences in the composition of those two hemispheres.

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      However, the hemispheres are actually much more interconnected than Sperry’s work initially made it seem.

      In a 2013 study,[3] scientists scanned over 1000 people’s brains, checking for lateralization. They confirmed that certain brain functions occur predominately in one hemisphere or the other but that, in reality, the brain is actually much more interconnected and complex than the right brain/left brain lateralization theory makes it seem.[4][5]

      A New Metaphor for Right Brain/Left Brain

      How do we get past this right brain/left brain myth?

      First, let’s look at what contemporary cognitive science says about brain regions, and creative and logical modes of thinking.

      My background is as an improviser and improv researcher. I wrote Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition and think looking at improvisation and the brain can shed light on a new model for talking about unlocking the brain’s creative potential.

      Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have shown that while trained improvisers improvise (musically on a keyboard, rapping, and comedic improvisation) an interesting shift happens in their brain activity. [6]

      A region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases in activity and creative language centers such as the medial prefrontal cortex increase in activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked with conscious thoughts—that inner voice that tells you not to say something or criticizes you when you do.

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      The medial prefrontal cortex is among the brain regions linked with creativity. So, instead of thinking about right brain and left brain, perhaps it’s more current and correct to think about more specific brain regions instead of hemispheres. Perhaps, it’s more useful to think about which activities and strategies will allow us to inhibit our dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes and allow our medial prefrontal cortexes to flourish.

      How to Enhance Your “Right Brain” — Creativity

      Whether we’re talking about right brain versus left brain, creative versus logical, or medial prefrontal cortex versus dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, we still know enough to talk about strategies to tap into your creative brain’s full potential.

      So, now that we’ve dispelled the right brain/left brain myth and looked at a more contemporary, cognitive neuroscience theory of brain regions and creativity centers, let’s look at how to tap into the potential of your creative brain.

      1. Performing Arts

      One way to tap into your creative brain centers is to participate in the performing arts. Whether you improvise, act, or dance, the performing arts allow you an embodied experience that will help you snap out of your habitual, logical thoughts.

      Another benefit of the performing arts is that it changes your attention. Attention and creativity are inextricably linked. When we improvise, act, or dance, we have to focus intently on our fellow performers. This means we are forced to focus less on our conscious, logical thoughts. This frees us up for more creative thinking and expression.[7]

      One of the conclusions of my research on improvisation is that focusing intensely on fellow improvisers and the task at hand makes it more likely that we experience a flow state. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi,[8] a Professor of Psychology and Management defines flow as an optimal psychological state when our skills match the difficulty of the task at hand. Our perception of time is altered as we get into the zone and become more present and in the moment during our chosen activity.[9]

      A flow state is a creative state. It’s the opposite of crunching numbers and forcing ourselves to work out a problem with the conscious regions of our brain. So, get up, improvise, act, or dance to access your creativity.

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      2. Visual Art

      Art teacher Betty Edwards[10] wrote a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Here again, we see that a shift in our attention can lead us to an increase in our creative thinking.

      Edwards’ book gives art students tricks to shift the way they see the world. For example, one exercise encourages students to literally flip whatever it is they’re drawing upside down before they draw it. This forces budding artists to literally see the object in a new way. This shift allows them to focus more on the individual components and patterns of the object, which allows them to draw it better.

      Shifting how we see things is another way we can access our creative brain centers. Take an art class to shut off your conscious, critical thoughts and start seeing things from a new, more creative perspective.

      3. Zone Out

      If there’s one thing creativity doesn’t like, it’s being coerced.

      I think we’ve all felt that awful feeling of trying to force ourselves to be creative. When we force it, we’re really trying to force our logical brain regions to be creative. It’s like asking your gardener to perform your appendix surgery. It’s just not what she does.

      Instead, stop forcing it. Take a break. Take a long walk or a relaxing bath or shower. Let your mind wander.

      Whatever you do, stop forcing it. This break lets your creative centers rise to the surface of your attention and get heard.

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      4. Practice Mindfulness

      The final trick to start accessing your so-called right brain is to practice mindfulness.

      Now, there’s a lot of different ways to go about mindfulness. You can take a more physical approach with a yoga class. Or you can try meditating to become more aware and in tune with your thoughts and feelings: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

      You could also try to incorporate fun mindfulness exercises[11] into your everyday routine like forcing yourself to go on detours or pretending you’re a detective who needs to examine people and places closely.

      Any way you do it, mindfulness exercises and training can help you become better versed in how your brain works and what your normal thought process is like on a day-to-day basis. If we’re ever going to reach our optimal creativity, we have to become an expert in how our individual brain functions. Mindfulness is one way to become your very own brain expert.

      Mindfulness also has added benefits like calming us, slowing our breathing, and helping us become more observant, which are also great ways to start tapping into our creative potential.

      Final Thoughts

      So, it may not be correct to say that our right brain is our creative brain, but it is still a valid pursuit to try to optimize our creative brain centers.

      The key to do so is to relax, become observant, shift your perspective, move your body, try something new, and, whatever you do, don’t force it.

      Creativity can feel slippery. It can abandon us when we need it most, but by slowing down and looking at things from a new perspective, we can give ourselves a better chance of tapping into our ultimate creativity, even if that doesn’t exactly mean our “right brain.”

      More Tips on Boosting Creativity

      Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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