Everybody knows that it is important to have a healthy body so you live a long, productive life, but what about your brain health? How can you increase your brain power with your everyday activities? How can you fuel up your brain?
Well, you could load up on caffeine and energy drinks for a temporary boost, but I think it is safe to say that we all know that caffeine and energy drinks are detrimental to our health. So let’s look at some sure-fire ways to boost your brain health that are actually good for you and that have scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness.
1. Brain training
Psychologists have known for quite some time that fundamental cognitive skills (for example, the speed at which we process information) are fairly stable throughout our life, and while we can often do more with what nature has given us, it is not so easy to improve our basic cognitive skill levels — at least until recently.
The latest player on the self-improvement scene is brain training, with all its neuroscientific gravitas and promises of genuine improvements to our fundamental cognitive skills, such as working memory and decision-making speed. Brain training is often done online via a person’s laptop, tablet, phone or personal computer. Brain training is often gamified so that it appears to be a leisure activity rather than an educational pursuit or a clinical intervention. And these games can often stimulate targeted areas of the brain that are crucial to intellectual activity.
Practice at these tasks can lead to the now well-documented process of neurogenesis. The idea is that we can literally boost our brains with the correct types of mental exercises. Because psychologists now know quite a bit about which brain areas are involved in what types of skills, they can devise exercises to target those precise areas so that, at least in theory, we can all become more agile thinkers, have more creative insights and reason more logically.
No doubt the field has become cluttered with all manner of charlatans riding the exciting new wave of interest in what is called “cognitive training” by psychologists. The media have made the lack of evidence for the merits of brain training a recurring theme in their pop science supplements. And it is true that many brain training companies make unsupported promises that have the science community shaking their heads in disbelief. However, this does not diminish the fact that scientists are increasingly aware that the brain is never fully formed and that humans are constantly in a process of growth and change. Stimulating this growth and change with cognitive activities will most certainly make for more fully developed brains on a physiological level.
Psychologists are also as sure as we can reasonably be that brain cell connections really do grow in response to stimulation, and that stimulated brain areas are measurably better developed as a result. We are less sure that we can actually become more intelligent, insightful, and creative in our thinking as a result of brain training, although all the evidence and theory points in the right direction. Some very high-profile research published by Professor Susan Jaegii and colleagues has led to a high degree of confidence among psychologists that a task known as the dual N-back task can indeed raise at least one important dimension of intelligence — known as fluid intelligence — significantly and in the long term (that is, at least several months).
Another report by Cassidy, Roche and Hayes (2011) in “The Psychological Record” found IQ gains of 13 points or so for children with learning difficulties exposed to a behavior-analytic form of intellectual skills training called relational skills training. It can certainly be argued that specific brain training games have not withstood scientific scrutiny and failed to show their efficacy as a clinical tool versus merely a game. However, this doesn’t take away from the basic fact that psychologists are on the cusp of something revolutionary with brain training techniques. These techniques really will give more power to you brain.
2. Maintain high levels of mental activity
The more conversations you have had as a child or have with your child, the more intelligent you or your child become. So if you want to power up your child’s or your own brain, then have more conversations. Start this form of brain training as early as humanly possible. Simple brain games involving naming objects and solving puzzles make learning a social as well as an educational matter and this improves everyone’s IQ.
Communication increases our vocabulary, which is important for our general intelligence levels. Kids whose parents read to them most days have higher IQs. However, the key to an increased IQ is not just to read, but to read interactively to a child. That means that you should use an interesting and varying tone of voice, showing lots of relevant emotion as you read. Look for signs of interest or reactions in the child and ask those questions as you go, making sure the child understands what is being read. For example, you could stop and ask: “What do you think happens next?” You can also check to see if they can tell you the meaning of a word, or you can provide one for them. This makes reading a fun social activity and this is where the real IQ boost comes from. This is probably the simplest and most important thing you can do for your child and it is why TV and audio stories played from CDs or computers just will not do the trick. It turns out that kids need their parents! Engaging with stories is very good for a child’s intellectual development, as shown in the article “What Reading Does for the Mind” by Cunningham & Stanovich (1998).
But don’t worry if you were never read to as a child. Exercising the brain and keeping mentally active is always a good idea, no matter what age you are now. Fun activities like crosswords, Sudoku, or whatever similar activity takes your fancy have long been suspected by neuroscientists to help improve your cognitive ability. Even struggling to understand a map or a badly written flat-pack furniture assembly guide will exercise your spatial and reasoning abilities. One of the simplest things you can do to make your brain sweat is to try to understand points of view that you do not agree with. Open your mind and listen to arguments that make no sense to you and try to find some sense in them.
3. Get plenty of physical exercise
Physical exercise is a great solution to a wide range of physical, emotional and even intellectual problems. Exercise is free and there are no side effects. Physical exercise increases your blood flow, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen and glucose your brain is receiving. As exercise also involves physical coordination, the brain gets a workout as it coordinates the physical activity. Exercise helps with the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and the connections between brain cells (neurogenesis) by promoting the production of three essential “growth factors,” called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1), and endothelial growth factor (VEGF).
These factors also minimize inflammation, grow new blood vessels, and slow down cell self-destruction. A good workout can also awaken dormant stem cells in the hippocampus, a part of the mid-brain that controls our memory system. Some research seems to suggest that there may be genuine intellectual benefits to exercise in terms of IQ gains.
4. Have a healthy and balanced diet
There are quite a range of food ingredients that are good for your brain and no end of marketing experts who will try to sell you the extracted ingredient in pill form or added to yoghurt. But the truth is that many food components can increase our mental functioning. Ginkgo biloba (extracted from the ginkgo tree) has good effects on memory. Vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, some berries, and the omega-3 oils found in oily fish (and some grains) appear to improve memory and overall brain function, as do green teas and protein in general. Protein, which we take in through meat, eggs and beans and peas (pulses), contain high levels of amino acids, such as tyrosine, which in turn cause neurons to produce the very important neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, which are associated with mental alertness.
The evidence is getting clearer on the effects of healthy diet and breastfeeding for an increased IQ. Mothers who breastfeed their babies for more than just a few weeks provide them with essential omega-3 fatty acids that are generally not available in baby formula. The same essential oils are also found in fresh fish, so kids fed plenty of fresh food and grains, including fresh fish from as early as possible, have higher IQs than kids fed on formula and processed food.
Perhaps the best evidence for exercise as a technique to fuel your brain power comes from a gold standard Randomized Controlled Trial study published in the journal Pediatrics by Helland, Smith, Saarem, Saugstad, & Drevon in 2003. That study compared the IQs of children fed on omega-3-enhanced milk formula compared to those who were not. The researchers found that the IQs of the omega-3 fed children were several points higher at four years of age — long after milk feeding had stopped.
A child’s IQ is also helped by the diet of the mother, especially in the last trimester of her pregnancy. If the mother eats a healthy diet high in omega-3 oils and feeds her child well, that child will gain several IQ points for life. A mother and infant diet based on processed meals and processed foods like fizzy drinks, cheap breads and cakes, may actually reduce your child’s IQ below its expected level.
5. Get good quality sleep
The brain does not shut off when we are asleep. The brain is at work while you sleep and much of the work is processing the learning that took place that day (see Walker, Stickgold, Alsop, Gaab, & Schlaug, 2005). Psychologists have long understood that our dreams, for example, are really just a reflection of all the work our brains are doing trying to make sense of all the information we have been taking in but have not yet fully interpreted and made sense of. So if this is true, you really can solve problems and make of sense of things by “sleeping on it.” On the other hand, if you do not sleep properly, you can lose the benefit of your learning experiences. You also will not learn as well the following day. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to benefit fully and perform at their cognitive peak each day.
6. Have good personal relationships
One particular form of memory that we practice in relationships of all kinds is known as “transactive” memory, a concept first developed by psychologist Daniel Wegner in 1985. This is a form of memory in which we become expert in one particular type of information and often have sole responsibility for it.
For example, at a party your spouse may be excellent at remembering someone’s job and taste in music once he is introduced, but they may be close to useless at remembering faces and names even if they have met someone before. This is why couples often work as a team, with each being relied upon to be expert in their area of talent. While each partner may struggle without the other, together they appear to have no problems at all remembering anything in social situations. Each partner benefits from the relationship in never feeling forgetful and always knowing what to say.
It also turns out that the more diverse your friends are in type, the more they challenge you to think creatively. They provide you with information you would not normally have and they give you different perspectives on everything. Your friends figuratively keep your mind open.
Having a strong, healthy and fit brain is increasingly important as we are now living longer than ever before. We can do most of these things every single day and they are scientifically proven to benefit us in the long term, not just in the here and now. The best news is that you don’t need to wait for the New Year to start having a fit and healthy brain. And you don’t need a gym membership or a self-help guru to guide your way to good brain health. All you need is a brain and the motivation to start powering it up!