Five Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

This Learning at Work Week, discover five practical ways to help increase your effectiveness at work.

Written by Mind Tools for Business
Published 16 May 2022
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Five Ways to Boost Your Brain Power
In recent years, everything from harmless (but mostly ineffective) brain-training apps to fanciful "real-time dream recording" have become available to help us boost our brain power. But there have been genuine developments in neuroscience that have enabled scientists to track physical changes in our brains, and their causes, ever more accurately. Some of this new research can be applied in the workplace, and it may help you to perform better, to lower your stress levels, to learn faster, and to feel healthier.

In the UK, Learning at Work Week 2022 runs from May 16 to 22. This year's theme is “Learning Uncovered”, with a focus on lifelong learning. It feels like a good time to explore ways to give our brains a boost, regardless of your location.

In this blog, we review some of the evidence-based research and explore five practical ways in which you can apply it to increase your effectiveness and wellbeing at work.

1. Get more exercise

Staying active is good for you. It can reduce stress, increase your sense of wellbeing, and strengthen your immune system. Cardiovascular exercise delivers more oxygen and glucose to the brain, which gives it the energy to function more effectively.

Evidence shows that the hippocampus – the area of the brain that is linked to memory and learning – can grow after just six weeks of regular aerobic exercise. As a rule, the hippocampus shrinks in late adulthood, but, according to one study, exercise can "effectively reverse" this decline and increase hippocampal volume by 2 percent. This can improve your memory, and may reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in later life.

When regular exercise stops, your hippocampus returns to its previous state. But the same experiment showed that the reversal was slower in those who were fitter to start with. So, try to build more activity into your working day.

If you're looking for instant results, try exercising and learning simultaneously. A study found that people who walked on a treadmill while learning foreign vocabulary were better able to remember it than those who didn't. So, it's time to start having walking meetings!

2. Practice mindfulness

Do you ever get that breathless feeling when you're under pressure? Your heart's pounding and you can't sit still, let alone concentrate on your work. That's your "fight or flight" response to stress. When you perceive that you're in danger, an area of your brain called the amygdala sends out a distress signal, resulting in a powerful burst of hormones that spurs your body to take action.

If you experience this response in situations that aren't life-threatening, though, you may produce high levels of cortisol, known as the "stress hormone." This can severely impact your concentration and your decision-making abilities. Worse, research shows that a prolonged excess of cortisol may "hardwire" your brain into a constant fight or flight state.

One way to avoid this type of chronic stress may be to activate the body's antidote to stress – the "relaxation response" – using mindfulness. The aim of mindfulness is to help you to become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and sensations in the present moment, compassionately and without judgment, and to apply this mindset to your everyday life.

Organizations as diverse as Google and the U.S. Army recognize its benefits, and there's growing evidence that as well as increasing your sense of wellbeing, mindfulness can have physical effects on your brain, too. For example, mindfulness has been shown to reduce gray matter in the amygdala, which governs the stress response, and to increase gray matter in the hippocampus and other brain regions associated with memory, learning, and regulating the emotions.

Note 1:
Numerous mindfulness courses are available online, and apps such as Headspace and Calm are useful for beginners.

3. Challenge your brain

Your brain has the ability to physically change, adapt and make new connections between cells in response to stimuli like your behavior, your thoughts, and your activities. This ability is called neuroplasticity.
Challenging your brain by learning something new or by taking up a new activity is one of the best ways to encourage these new connections to form.

Learning a new language is one proven way to do this. For example, researchers observed that English speakers who were asked to learn Mandarin Chinese showed an increase in their gray matter density, and stronger, better integrated connections between different areas of their brains, which enhanced their ability to learn.

New neural connections enable your brain to apply what it has learned to other areas or problems, too, not just the specific task or skill that you've just learned.

4. Sleep better, wake up smarter!

Sleep matters. Adults generally need seven to eight hours' sleep to feel refreshed and to function well the next day.

But the way you wake up is also important. Each morning, you receive a jolt of cortisol – an increase of 50 percent, on average – known as the "cortisol awakening response" (CAR). It gives you a burst of energy and gets your brain functions into gear, and it reaches its peak around 30 minutes after you wake up.
You can harness CAR to optimize your performance during the day by waking early and at a regular time, usually between 6 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. Your morning routine should then synchronize with your body's circadian rhythms. These natural cycles are linked to sunlight, and waking gradually as daylight increases is the best way to boost your CAR.

Light therapy devices, which produce the blue-tinted light that boosts CAR on dark mornings, can help, as can avoiding the use of tablets and smartphones before you go to bed. These devices also emit blue light, which can fool the body into thinking that it's morning, disrupting your circadian rhythms and leading to poor quality sleep.

5. Trust your gut feeling

Although your brain accounts for just two percent of your body weight, it consumes 20 to 25 percent of your energy. No wonder thinking makes you tired! So, it's important to feed your brain well.

Your gut has a nervous system of its own: the enteric nervous system (which you might have heard referred to as a "second brain"). This has a direct link to your brain, called the "gut-brain axis." There are also trillions of bacteria in your gut – the microbiota – which form an integral part of the unconscious gut-brain system. Remarkably, they help govern your moods and behavior, including your ability to manage stress.

To keep both "brains" in good health, you need to maintain a healthy gut. The best approach is to follow a varied, balanced diet that is rich in fresh foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and high in antioxidants. These may help to prevent damage and deterioration to your brain cells.

Flavonoids, found in black and green teas, citrus fruits, and dark berries, help to keep your memory sharp. These are also found in cocoa, so a little bit of dark chocolate shouldn't do any harm!

Essential fats are important, too: the monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil, nuts and avocados are linked to "general intelligence" and can help when tackling demanding mental tasks, and problem solving.

Note:
The points made in this article are for information only. Always seek professional medical advice if you're thinking of making changes to your diet or exercise regime, or if you are suffering from stress, anxiety or other mental health problems.

Key points

Neuroscience is a rapidly expanding field of research that uses imaging technology to track the physical changes that take place in our brains in response to different stimuli, and measures their impact.
These physical changes are the result of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity: the ability to create new connections in our brains as a result of our thoughts, learning and behavior.

There are five areas in which neuroscientific findings could aid your personal effectiveness and well-being:
  1. Regular exercise can improve memory and learning.
  2. Mindfulness meditation can reduce stress.
  3. Learning enhances learning!
  4. Good sleep, and gradual waking in natural blue light, can improve our ability to learn.
  5. Eating healthily contributes to psychological well-being and general intelligence.

Sources

Chetty, S. et al (2014). 'Stress and Glucocorticoids Promote Oligodendrogenesis in the Adult Hippocampus,' Molecular Psychiatry, 19, 1275–1283. Available here.
 
Christensen, M.A. (2016). 'Direct Measurements of Smartphone Screen-Time: Relationships with Demographics and Sleep,' PLoS ONE, 11(11), e0165331. Available here.
 
Dinan, T.G. et al (2015). 'Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behavior,' Journal of Psychiatric Research, 63, 1-9. Available here
 
Erickson, K.I. et al (2011). 'Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory,' PNAS, 108(7), 3017–3022. Available here
 
Hölzel, B.K. et al (2010). 'Stress Reduction Correlates with Structural Changes in the Amygdala,' Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17. Available here.
 
Hölzel, B.K. et al (2011). 'Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,' Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43. Available here.
 
Li, P., Legault, J. and Litcofsky, K. (2014). 'Neuroplasticity as a Function of Second Language Learning: Anatomical Changes in the Human Brain,' Cortex, 58, 301-324. Available here.

Schmidt-Kassow, M. et al (2014). 'Treadmill Walking During Vocabulary Encoding Improves Verbal Long-Term Memory,' Behavioral and Brain Functions, 10(24). Available here.
 
Spencer, J.P.E. (2010). 'The Impact of Fruit Flavonoids on Memory and Cognition,' British Journal of Nutrition, 104, S40–S47. Available here.
 
Thomas, A.G. et al (2016). 'Multi-Modal Characterization of Rapid Anterior Hippocampal Volume Increase Associated with Aerobic Exercise,' NeuroImage, 131, 162-170. Available here.
 
Valk, S.L. et al (2017), 'Structural Plasticity of the Social Brain: Differential Change after Socio-Affective and Cognitive Mental Training,' Science Advances, 3, e1700489. Available here.
 
Image credit: Fit woman drinking a green detox smoothie at the gym. Available here.

About the author

Mind Tools for Business

Mind Tools for Business

Mind Tools for Business brings accessible, on-demand performance tools and resources that empower colleagues to perform in today’s progressive workplaces. Helping them build happy and successful careers and to contribute positively to the success of organisations, the world over. At Mind Tools for Business, empowering people to thrive at work has been our passion for 25 years.

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