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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

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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