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Published on February 24, 2020

6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

Dolly Parton may have said it best when she sang,

“The day you’re born is the day you start to die.”

Bleak? Sure, but it also gets to the heart of why we need to take care of our brains while we still can. If you want your cognitive thinking to stay sharp into your golden years, you need to take active steps now to improve and preserve those skills.

Luckily, the brain doesn’t stop growing and developing when you become an adult. Our brains are plastic, which means they can continue to change. Therefore, it’s a good idea to learn some tips and tricks on how to improve your cognitive thinking while you still can.

This article will give you 6 scientifically proven, research-backed ways to preserve and improve your cognitive thinking. The first three lay the foundation for healthy brain functioning, and the last three are strategies to improve higher-order cognitive thinking skills throughout the day.

Cognition Defined

Cognition is anything having to do with intellectual activity. Examples of cognitive skills are remembering, thinking, and reasoning. Basically, cognition is anything having to do with your conscious thought processes.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gives us a cheat sheet for a variety of cognitive thinking skills. Increasing in difficulty and complexity, Bloom’s Taxonomy includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and then creating. [1]

Ways to Improve Cognitive Thinking

1. Reduce Stress

The human brain doesn’t operate at full capacity when it’s stressed out. Research shows that stress exacerbates or even leads to illnesses such as depression, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[2]

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Therefore, managing stress is crucial to optimal cognitive thinking and overall brain health. Here are a few ways to help manage your stress.

Breathing Exercises

Stress reduction comes in many forms. Some of the most effective are breathing exercises, meditation, and taking walks.

Breathing exercises for stress reduction should include slow, measured deep breaths. Focus on the breath itself as you breathe in and out. This takes your mind off your stressors and delivers some much-needed oxygen to the brain, something it needs for optimal cognitive thinking.

Meditation

Meditation also helps with stress reduction. Even five minutes of meditation a day can have significant impacts on stress levels.

Meditation is about monitoring your thoughts more than forcing yourself to not think. As new thoughts pop in your head, just let them roll on by. Some people visualize their thoughts as clouds to help themselves with their meditation practice.

Take a Walk

It’s often better to walk away when you’re stressed than to try to muscle through. To reduce stress, take a break. Get some fresh air to help you clear your head and avoid being reactive. Moreover, getting out into nature is good for the soul.

2. Do Aerobic Activity

Another way to improve your cognitive thinking is to get some aerobic exercise. Moving your body and increasing your heart and breathing rates have been shown to stop the natural deterioration in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices, which decreases cognitive thinking.[3] Deterioration of these regions is a natural part of aging, but getting aerobic exercise can help slow the decline.

Brisk Walking

You may not think walking is vigorous enough to count as aerobic activity, but it absolutely is. Just pick up the pace and walk as fast as you’re able. Twenty minutes of brisk walking each day will go a long way toward boosting your cognitive thinking.

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Swimming

Swimming is a great choice for aerobic activity. It’s easy on the joints, and you won’t even know you’re sweating as you do laps in the pool.

Yoga

Certain types of yoga, such as Ashtanga, can give you an aerobic boost in addition to helping you with meditation and flexibility.

3. Get Plenty of Sleep

Research also points to sleep as an important part of optimal cognitive functioning. One study indicates that sleep may be an integral part of memory.

Sleep is when the brain ditches certain synaptic connections in order to strengthen others. Basically, your brain needs sleep to sift through everything that happens to you each day, remembering what’s important and forgetting the rest.

It’s recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Keep in mind that sleep isn’t something that you can catch up on. Consistency is crucial.

Consistent Bedtime Routine

In order to ensure you’re falling asleep at around the same time each night, a consistent bedtime routine is important. Come up with your bedtime routine and stick with it. Switching up your routine can mess up your sleep schedule.

Limit Your Screen Time

As part of your consistent bedtime routine, make sure to limit screen time at least an hour before bed. Screens release dopamine in your brain and get your adrenaline pumping, so they also get some people too amped up to easily fall asleep each night.

Also, make sure to set your phone to Do Not Disturb, so it doesn’t interrupt your sleep with beeps and buzzes. In fact, researchers now say that keeping it in a different room altogether may be even better for a good night’s rest.

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Melatonin

Melatonin can also help you fall and stay asleep. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that spikes during nighttime sleep cycles, so supplementing with a Melatonin pill can help the body with its circadian rhythms, getting you the sleep your body needs for optimal cognitive thinking during the day.

4. Cognitive Simulations

Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep lay the foundation for improving cognitive thinking, but to really boost your brain, there are three more strategies you can implement during the day.

Cognitive simulations are really just brain teasers where the individual must use their existing knowledge to come up with solutions to novel problems — think crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Cognitive simulations boost the brain’s cognitive processing abilities because the brain is plastic, meaning it’s malleable. If you don’t use the brain’s ability to take new information and solve problems, you lose it.[4]

Therefore, it’s crucial to keep your brain challenged and active. Cognitive simulations are one way to do exactly that.[5]

5. Thinking Aloud

The next strategy to improve your cognitive thinking is a technique called thinking aloud. It’s as simple as it sounds. Instead of thinking silently in your head, verbalize your thought processes.

Thinking aloud is a great training tool. It helps the teacher hear where the student’s comprehension needs improvement. It has also been shown to improve clinical outcomes in nurses.[6] Thinking aloud forces you to verbalize all parts of a problem, which helps you avoid oversights.

6. Concept Mapping

Finally, concept mapping can also improve your cognitive thinking. Concept mapping is a visual representation of someone’s thoughts — think word webs. Concept maps are basically just drawings that demonstrate all the connections and relationships between ideas.

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In one study, concept maps improved the critical thinking of grad-level nurses.[7] Similar to thinking aloud, concept mapping showed deficiencies in student thinking, but also strengthened the students’ critical thinking skills.

It’s like that saying, if you want to really learn something, teach it. By mapping what we know, we force ourselves to ruminate on all we do and don’t know about a certain topic. This strengthens our understanding and makes clear where we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive thinking isn’t the same as critical thinking. Cognitive thinking also includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep are crucial for making sure our brains are healthy, getting plenty of oxygen, and sorting through memories each night.

During the day, we can exercise our brains with cognitive simulations, thinking aloud, and concept mapping to improve our higher-order cognitive thinking.

You may have started dying since the day you were born, but a better way to look at it is that your brain can continue to grow and develop until the day you die. Just make sure you’re actively improving your cognitive thinking with these six tips.

More on Improving Thinking

Featured photo credit: Clever Visuals via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Last Updated on March 25, 2020

How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person

How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person

There are several perspectives on the term systems thinking. The discipline goes beyond a collection of tools and techniques. A lot of individuals are fascinated by tools like brainstorming tools, structural thinking tools, dynamic thinking tools, as well as computer-based tools. They believe the system thinking tools can make them smarter and productive. However, it goes beyond that as systems thinking is more strategic and sensitive to the environment we find ourselves.

So what is systems thinking and why is it good for you?

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a diagnostic tool that can help you to assess problems before taking action. It helps you to ask questions before arriving at conclusions. It prevents you from making an assumption, which is the lowest level of knowledge.

A systems thinker is curious, compassionate, and courageous. The systems thinking approach incorporates the act of seeing the big picture instead of seeing in parts. It recognizes that we are connected, and there are diverse ways to solve a problem.

Characteristics of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking can help you in analyzing the connections between subsystems and understanding their potentials to make smarter decisions.

In a soccer team, the elements are the coach, players, the field, and a ball. The interrelationships are strategies, communications among players, and game rules. The goal is to win, have fun and exercise. We all belong to several systems and subsystems.

Some characteristics of systems thinking include:

  • Issue is important
  • The issue is familiar with well-known patterns
  • Attempts have been made to resolve the issue.

Given these characteristics, systems thinking goes beyond an operational tool; it is a strategic approach and a philosophy.

How to Use Systems Thinking

Here’re 3 ways you can use systems thinking:

1. Understand How the System Works and Use Feedback Points

The first task is to know what system is all about and identify the leverage points or feedbacks that influence its functioning. This is what will help in adjusting the system.

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If you want the system to be productive, enhance the feedback points. If you want it to be less productive, exhaust the same points.

A good example is that of a bathtub. The leverage points are the faucet and the drain. If you forget to close the drain, having turned on the water, the water will never stop flowing, and the tub will never overflow.

If you want more water, close the drain while you turn the water. If otherwise, turn the faucet off and open the drain. You can apply this to your personal development.

Once you discover the feedback points in your life, find your leverage or feedback points, then enhance those points. If you want to be fit, get a trainer, find a mentor, or eat healthy foods.

2. Discover the Patterns, Structure, and Events

Trends and patterns could be compared to clues for a crossword puzzle. As you aspire to enhance the system, trends and patterns offer you hints and cause to shift your paradigm. Usually, they can direct you to unusual and unexpected aspects, to ideas, people, or places you have never thought about.

Smart people watch out for trends and patterns so they can be conversant with changes.

You can view the world from 3 different perspectives:

i. The Event Perspective

If you consider the world from an event perspective, the best you can do is to be smarter is ‘react’. You tend to be smarter by reacting quickly, becoming more lighter on your feet, and flexible as you advance through life.

So how do you view the world from an event perspective? You ask a question like, ‘What happened?’.

There is the possibility of becoming more aware and seeing more at this level. An excellent technique to achieve this is by telling a story to a group. If you can see beyond each event, see beyond patterns and trends, you will be empowered to anticipate, predict, and plan.

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ii. Pattern Perspective

To view the world from a pattern perspective, you need to ask, ‘What has been happening?’

It is most times difficult to see the actual size of an iceberg (underlying structures that are the causes of events). The waterline dissects what’s visible from what’s not visible.

A systems thinker does not assume from what’s visible only; he or she seeks to know what has been happening.

Take a look at this video to understand more about the Iceberg Theory:

 

iii. The Structure Perspective

To view the world from a structure perspective, you need to ask, ‘what is causing issues?’ The answers will be the factors and forces responsible.

If you find yourself in a traffic jam, you don’t blame the next driver as a smart person; you could ask, ‘what’s been causing the traffic jam?

The usual answers could be a decaying road surface, careless driver, or high speed, but that would be the same things identified as trends. What makes the structure perspective different from others.

The structure is what propels your energy. It is what affects happenings. A systems thinkers make deductions based on internal structures to arrive at a conclusion

3. People Problems vs System Problems

Several issues ranging from security breaches, product flaws, poverty, to transportation inefficiencies are systemic.

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Even when you misbehave, there is usually an internal system to blame.

If you are not productive in your business, it may not be caused by you. There may be a system that you need to enhance.

Do you remember our feedback points? As soon as you assess the system, you can focus on people. Is a new hire causing lag in the packaging process? Is poor communication affecting the team’s performance? Reallocating job roles may be a perfect leverage point.

In the traffic jam example, there could be a system-based solution such as installing traffic lights and subsequently enforcing traffic laws in the area to penalize reckless drivers.

How to Foster Learning with Systems Thinking

Systems thinking helps you to appreciate the interrelationships of people, organizations, policies, decisions, ideas, and relationships.

Peter M Senge propounded five disciplines that foster learning in your DNA- whether you are leading an organization, starting a venture, or working as a freelancer.[1]

1. Gain Mastery

You can take online courses, attend conferences, read blog articles and books, listen to podcasts, converse with leaders within and beyond your industry, watch documentaries, learn from your team, and stretch yourself by improving your skills.

2. Discover Your Assumptions and Biases

There was this parable of four blind men who made different assumptions about an elephant. Their assumptions and biases hinder them from understanding how the animal looks like.

Biases can rob you of innovation and prevent you from experiencing personal growth. To become aware of your biases, you have to take an internal trip and engage breakthrough thinking.

3. Establish Your Vision

Systems grind to a halt when the goal or mission is not defined. You will not have the motivation to complete the online course if you don’t know why you subscribe in the first place.

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Is it for career advancement? To up your game or to gain general knowledge? Vision inspires you.

4. Learn in Groups

There is power in shared learning. There is a solidification of understanding when you learn in a group. You can have the lessons etched in your long term memory.

For instance, you can join learning groups where information is shared weekly.

5. Think in Systems

Systems thinking is about lifelong learning and improvement. It has also been linked to the Iceberg principle, which affirms that visible events are insignificant compared to what’s visible. There’s more ice below the waterline than what you can see with your physical eyes.

Anytime you are battling with a challenge, think in systems. Understand the details of the issue. Discover your leverage points. Assess, adapt, and keep improving your models.

After all. If you meet a lion in the wild, you need to understand what you are facing.

Final Thoughts

You can foster systems thinking by modeling your own environment. Participate in training, watch TED Talks, and create time to connect with others.

Also, practice critical thinking instead of making assumptions before you make a decision. The more you think systems, the more you will become smarter and productive in every aspect of your life.

More to Help You Think Smarter

Featured photo credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via unsplash.com

Reference

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