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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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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

Reference

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