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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

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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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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