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Published on October 28, 2019

How to Train Your Brain to Think Fast and Think Smart

How to Train Your Brain to Think Fast and Think Smart

In a TEDx Talk in 2015, Matt Abrahams got up in front of a crowd and said:[1]

“People hate me. People fear me… I have a tool and that tool is what makes people fear me and despise me. As a professor, I have an ability that’s called cold calling. That’s where I look at a student and ask ‘what do you think?’ ‘what do you feel about what we just discussed?’ ‘how does this impact you?'”

In that paragraph alone, there is a lot to unpack, but what’s important to note for now is this ability of his: Cold calling.

Why do people fear it so much?

Likely because it’s estimated that 75% of people have a fear of public speaking.[2] But digging further, it might also be due to people being unable to think fast in those situations.

Looking further than that, there are likely all kinds of other social situations where you wish you could think fast. From coming up with witty remarks to finishing a task faster, thinking fast has various perks and requires training to achieve it.

The Importance of Thinking Fast

Before we learn how it’s important, we need to learn why it’s important. If there is no reason to practice, then we will ultimately stop after a while.

Being able to think fast provides a wide variety of benefits. Outside of the few social situations I mentioned above, some other ones include:

  • People will think you are smarter.
  • When people are asked to think fast, they are happier, more creative, energetic, and self-confident.
[3]
  • Faster thinking also ties into planning, problem-solving, goal setting, and being able to focus.[4]
  • Faster thinking will also keep your brain mentally sharp.
  • You also will experience faster reaction times.

The list is extensive but the idea is: the stronger your brain is, the more you can leverage it in many aspects of life.

How Do You Think Faster?

The next question is how does one increase speed? That answer is through a variety of ways that I’ve listed below.

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1. Make Faster Minor Decisions

We are faced with many decisions over the course of the day but, some of them aren’t as important as others. Eating is important, but the decision between a salad, chicken, or beef is inconsequential. Being able to quickly decide what to eat can help you with thinking faster.

After all, even if your decision wasn’t the best, the consequences are small. This training works since this is literally the act of thinking fast.

But one thing I’ll stress is the keyword with this advice — minor decisions. Do not use this tactic in more pressing life-altering decisions which will have larger consequences.

2. Practice Speed

There are things that we do all the time and we’ve gotten really good at — playing music, learning songs, writing, or doing specific stretches. Whatever the case, I encourage you to add another layer of challenge to those skills by speeding up. Similar to the tactic above, this also demands you think fast to perform a task.

What will help you in practicing speed would be a timer. Time yourself on completing puzzles or running a lap. You can give yourself an allotted time to complete a task.

That second strategy is surprisingly effective as most people will instinctively prioritize the most important aspects of that task. It’s called Parkinsons Law.

3. Stop Trying To Multitask

As much as we like to think we can do tasks at once, we really can’t. Our brain – as powerful as it is – is unable to focus on two tasks at once.

But why can people rub their tummy and pat their head?

Well, that’s because our brain rapidly toggles between tasks. In those situations, people’s brains are jumping between those tasks faster. Outside of those situations though, the research found that multitasking reduces attention span, our ability to learn and our mental performance.[5]

Therefore, it’s smarter for us to prioritize a single task and give it our undivided attention until completion.

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4. Get Sufficient Sleep

Adequate sleep is necessary not only for body function but for brain function as well. One study found that not sleeping well will impact our thinking speed and accuracy.[6] By that logic, it makes sense that sleep will help in keeping our brain healthier and functional.

5. Meditate

Regular meditation is another way for us to stimulate our brain. There have been all kinds of studies showing how meditation helps with the creation of new brain cells and neural connections. That’s because meditation strengthens the communication between cells in the first place.[7]

6. Do Aerobic Exercises

All exercise is great for us and our brain to some degree. That being said, aerobic exercises specifically have shown to improve the processing speed of our brain.[8] Aerobic exercises are exercises like jogging, walking, biking, and swimming.

All of these strategies can help you with thinking fast. However, there’s one other strategy worth looking over. It’s the research that was conducted by Daniel Kahneman on thinking slow and fast.

Thinking Slow And Fast

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman uncovers various concepts revolving around decision-making and behavioural psychology. It’s well worth a read as the book explains various concepts and makes you think a lot about how we go about decisions.

For example, one big takeaway from the book revolves around two systems. These two systems are how we think. System 1 is about thinking fast, while System 2 is about thinking slow. This forms the premise of the book.

But there is a twist to this.

While a lot of us believe we are analytical thinkers who think slow, we actually spend most of the time in the System 1 – fast thinking. So we’re technically already able to think fast. But maybe not in the way you’d think.

You see, System 1 is all about intuition. It’s what our gut tells us and we use that to make decisions. It’s the very same system we use to judge people and put together the first impressions of people.

It’s until we make a conscious effort do we actually move to System 2 and think slow. Kahneman expands on this:

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“Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine — usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer… System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.”

Because of this, System 1 is constantly making judgements, intuitions and impressions based on what is being sensed. In most situations, we instinctively gravitate towards that idea presented.

This often leads us to jump to conclusions despite us thinking fast. We even create a story to further solidify that conclusion even if it’s unfounded. Kahneman explains:

“The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions.”

While training ourselves to think fast is helpful, it’s important to be wary of that power. As Kahneman outlined, people can jump to conclusions too quickly and that can cause issues.

Learning to think slow and fast stems from an understanding of when it’s appropriate to think slow or fast. Indeed, improve your thinking speed, but keep the information presented in mind as we delve into what thinking slow really means.

Understand Type 2 Thinking

Type 2 thinking is another way to say System 2 thinking. And the best way to fully represent this form of thinking is to solve the following problem:

18 x 26

In this example, you can immediately identify that this is a multiplication problem. A math problem you are confident you can solve with the help of a pen and paper or a calculator. All of this information alone represents System 1 thinking.

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System 2 thinking is the act of you going through the steps to solve the problem. If you were to solve the problem by hand or mentally, you’d retrieve the math skills you were taught in school and implement them in your solution.

Overall the mental work was deliberate, orderly, and took effort and some strain. Most likely had a shift in facial expression as you worked to solve the answer -which is 468 – or when you gave up.

What this exercise reveals is that both forms of thinking feed off of one another. In order for us to go slow, we must learn to go fast.

System 1 presents the overall ideas and goals and views (i.e. this is a math problem and your goal is to solve it). System 2, on the other hand, breaks those down into steps and constructs thoughts in an orderly fashion (i.e. here are the steps to take so solve the math problem).

By understanding this relationship, we not only understand our thinking process but we can learn to be okay with it. We can accept that some things will take more time to process. The point of that is to not get frustrated or jump the gun.

When to use type 2 thinking is to understand when a situation requires our attention. Examples of this are not only that math problem but also:

  • When looking for someone.
  • Remembering a particular quote from a book.
  • Filling out a tax form or other government documents.
  • Even maintaining a faster walking or running speed than what we are used to.

System 2 thinking demands that we process those things and that we think slow in those situations.

Final Thoughts

While there are all kinds of tactics to exercise our brain to think fast, speed isn’t always everything. Sometimes situations call for us to carefully consider and gather our thoughts. It’s important to find balance in thinking fast and slow.

By understanding the connection between both systems, we can better determine when to be thinking fast or slow. No matter what though, there is nothing wrong with either of the thinking processes. After all, each situation we have in our lives demands different forms of thinking from all of us.

More to Enhance Your Brain Power

Featured photo credit: Allef Vinicius via unsplash.com

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

Throughout the ages, there have been many beliefs in various tricks to boosting brain power, yet when held up to scientific scrutiny, most of these beliefs don’t add up.

When I was a child, for example, my mother told me if I ate fish it would make me more intelligent. Of course, there’s no scientific proof this is true.

Today, there is a myriad of games you can download to your phone that claims to improve your brain’s cognitive skills. While we are still waiting for a conclusive scientific verdict on these, recent studies by neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario[1] and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia appear to contradict these claims.[2]

So, how can we really boost our brain power? Well, it turns out there are a number of simple things you can do that will improve the function of your brain. Here are seven to get you started.

1. Do Your Most Difficult Tasks in the Morning

Our brains work at their best when they are fresh and energized after a good night’s sleep.

If you have a task to do that requires a lot of thought and focus, the best time to do that task would be first thing in the morning when your brain is at its freshest.

This is one of the reasons why checking email first thing the morning is not a good idea. You are wasting your brain’s best hours on a simple task that can be done when your brain is not at its freshest

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Throughout the day, you will find the amount of time you can focus for will fall. Your decision-making abilities will also begin to weaken as the day progresses. This is called “decision fatigue” and that means the decisions you make later in the day will not be as good as the decisions you make earlier in the day.

It’s far better to do your most difficult, creative tasks early taking advantage of your brain’s higher energy levels.

Try to avoid meetings first thing in the morning and schedule work that needs higher creative energy and concentration.

2. Get Enough Breaks

Our brains are not very good at maintaining concentration and focus for much more than an hour. Once you go beyond a certain amount of time, doing focused work, you will find yourself making more and more mistakes. This is a sign your brain is tired and needs a break.

Taking the right kind of break is important. Switching from working on a complex spreadsheet to checking your social media feeds is not going to give your brain the right kind of break. Instead, get up from your desk and head outside. If that is not possible, go to the nearest window and look outside.

Your brain needs a break from the screen, not just the spreadsheet, so leave your phone behind so you are not tempted to look at it and just savour the view.

3. Read Books, not Social Media Feeds

There are no shortcuts to improved knowledge and you are certainly not going to improve your general knowledge about anything useful by reading social media feeds. Instead, make reading books a regular habit.

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When you read good quality books, you increase your ability to use the knowledge you learn to solve problems as your brain will apply the knowledge you learned to existing situations.

Learn about economic theory, history and psychology. All these topics have real practical applications for us all today.

4. Exercise Regularly

Humans did not evolve to be stationary animals. You need to move.

Had our ancestors spent their days sat around, they would not have survived very long. To survive and find food, our ancestors had to keep moving. Our brains have evolved to function at their best when we are exercised.

In his book, Brain Rules, Prof.John Medina explains when we exercise, we increase the amount of oxygen in our brains and this helps to sharpen our brain’s functions.

In studies, when a previously sedentary group of people began a light exercise programme, their cognitive skills improve as well as reaction times and quantitive skills.

This is why you are more likely to find the solution to a problem when you are walking somewhere or exercising rather than when you are sat at a desk in front of a screen.

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5. Get Enough of the Right Food

You probably have experienced the afternoon slump at some point in your life. This is when you feel tired and fatigued in the mid-afternoon. This is a result of the carbohydrates you ate at lunchtime, stimulating your body to produce insulin which then causes a drop in your blood sugar levels.

When you go into an afternoon slump, concentrating for long periods become almost impossible and you just want to curl up and go to sleep.

To prevent the afternoon slump, try to eat a protein-rich lunch such as a tuna or chicken salad without pasta, rice or bread. Keep some healthy snacks such as mixed nuts and dried bananas around your workspace and when you feel a little peckish, eat a few of these.

Not only will you avoid the afternoon slump, but you will also improve your overall general health and feel a lot more energetic.

6. Drink Enough Water

Your brain is made up of about 70% water, so without enough water, your brain will not function at its best.

When you are not drinking enough water, you will find your ability to concentrate, make decisions and stay alert will reduce. You will feel sleepy and lack energy. Your brain functions at its best when it is properly hydrated.

The solution is to keep a large bottle of water at your work station and sip regularly from it throughout the day. This will increase the number of trips you need to make to the bathroom which is a good thing. It will keep you moving and taking regular breaks from your screen.

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7. Don’t Deprive Yourself of Sleep

You probably don’t need a long scientific study to convince you that if you are not getting enough sleep, you are not going to function at your best.

You just need to go a couple of days without getting enough sleep and you feel your abilities reduce. Your decision-making skills become erratic, your energy levels drop and your ability to stay focused on your work diminishes.

If you want to improve your brain’s ability to function, then start with getting enough sleep. The number of hours you need will depend on your own circadian rhythms, so find what works best for you.

Six to eight hours is usually enough for most people so make sure you are hitting that number of hours per night as a minimum.

The Bottom Line

Improving our brain power is not difficult. All we need to do is develop a few simple habits such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and eating the right foods.

These seven tips will go a long way to helping you to become more alert, able to focus longer and make decisions. All simple common sense tricks anyone can use.

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Featured photo credit: Nicole Wolf via unsplash.com

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