With the right stimulation, our brains can create new connections and become stronger & more resilient
Like any other muscle in the body, the brain requires regular exercise to function optimally. If you’re like most of us, you’re heading back to work or studies after vacation. Don’t feel bad if you realize you haven’t been using your noggin much in the past few months!
While mental rest is as just as necessary as exercise, give yourself a head start so you can dive into your next project head-first.
The good news? There are many ways to boost your brainpower and get those gears running again. By implementing “brain workout habits” into your routine, you’ll be mentally sharp and focused, ready for the work ahead.
It’s important to train our brains
The brain is the control center for pretty much everything we do in life. It helps us learn things, find problems, come up with solutions, make decisions, and remember where we’ve placed our car keys (…or not).
Brain training refers to increasing cognitive function, enhancing our ability to learn new things, and improving our memory.
Science shows us that our brains can be rewired no matter how old we are. With the right stimulation, our brains can create new connections and adapt to changes, becoming stronger and more resilient.
Every brain-boosting activity has four elements:
- It requires you to learn something new: To grow, your brain needs to be stretched in new directions.
- It’s challenging: If the activity’s too easy, your brain would not be engaged.
- It’s a skill you could build on: There’s always new areas for improvement, learning, and discovery, while becoming more confident in what you already know.
- It’s fun, rewarding, and satisfying for you: Rewards support the learning process, and help you stay engaged in the activity.
Tip of the day: Involve as many senses as possible when you’re learning something new. This builds multiple pathways in your brain, increasing your focus and knowledge retention.
Brain training doesn’t only improve the way you think or remember things; it can also lead to less stress, better moods, high levels of mental flexibility, and increased self-confidence.
But how exactly do we train our brains? Simple. We rewire it.
Neuroplasticity: How we can “rewire” our brains
Unlike computers that receive the occasional software update, our brains receive software and hardware updates through experiences that build or erase pathways in our brain. Our brains make new connections each time we learn something new, rewiring to adapt to new circumstances.
This ability of the brain to change how its circuits are wired is called neuroplasticity.
The two main types of neuroplasticity are:
- Structural neuroplasticity: This denotes changes in the strength or frequency of connections between neurons (called synapses).
- Functional neuroplasticity: This refers to permanent changes in synapses due to learning and brain development.
In essence, each new experience we have or new thing we learn has the potential to connect neurons to each other in new ways, thus changing the way our brain operates.
Not all learning is created equal, however; for example, learning to play an instrument would have a more powerful effect on rewiring your brain than learning to type faster.
Exercising our brain’s natural plasticity results in the following:
- Increased productivity: By building new connections that guide your mind into work- or study-ready mode, it becomes easier to focus, get into a flow, and do your best work anywhere, anytime.
- Better memory: The more neural connections your brain makes, the better you’ll remember what you’ve learned—yes, even boring graphs!
- More effective learning: As you push yourself into absorbing new information and experiences, your mind gets used to building new connections, making it second-nature to learn new skills and remember intricate details.
Neuroplasticity, practically speaking, is about carving new pathways in your mind that support your study, work, and life; strengthening the best pathways that already exist, and allowing suboptimal connections to fade away (with reduced use).
Exercises to help boost brain power
The following habits and exercises could help to boost your brainpower, open new pathways in your brain, and keep your mind active—all of which lead to more of those “aha!” moments and states of flow we all long for.
- Break out of your daily routine – Here at Freedom, we’re all about building productive routines that power your morning and prepare you for focused work. However, changing your daily routine from time to time can energize your brain, improving efficiency and productivity.
- Traveling – Try regularly exposing your mind to new surroundings (or old surroundings at a different time or in different weather). Take a new route to work, and see how easy it is to change your thinking.
- Learn a new language – Many cognitive benefits come with being able to speak more than one language, according to a 2012 scientific review. Bilingualism (or polygotism, for the more ambitious) can lead to better memory, improved visual-spatial skills, increased levels of creativity, and an enhanced ability to switch between tasks.
- Meditate – Daily meditation can calm your body, slow your breathing, reduce your stress, and boost your productivity, among many things. But did you know a few minutes of meditation also helps to fine-tune your memory, increase the brain’s ability to process information, and build strong neural pathways?
- Socialize – It’s not always possible to catch up with friends or meet new people every day. However, building strong interpersonal connections can prevent cognitive decline, as well as promote overall wellbeing.
- Use your non-dominant hand – Do daily things like writing, brushing your teeth, or cleaning the counter with your “wrong hand”. Or try to do these things while balancing on one foot. Encourage your body to move in ways it’s not used to, and make neurons spark for joy in your mind!
- Be more musical – Music—whether that be playing an instrument, listening to Mozart, or singing with friends—activates our brains. A 2015 study discovered that classical music is linked to improvements in attention and cognitive function. If music’s not your jam, explore sketching, coloring, or creative writing as potential brain-growing hobbies to pick up.
- Sleep more – Sleeping encourages learning retention; as you sleep or take naps, connections called dendritic spines between neurons are strengthened, making it easier to transmit new information and store old ones. Make getting enough sleep a new, brain-changing habit!
- Feed your brain – The brain uses up about twenty-five percent of everything you eat. Make sure you’re consuming enough Vitamin D and Bs, omega-3, and magnesium. Grab a snack with walnuts, blueberries, and whole grains, or a light tuna sandwich.
- Expand your vocabulary – Learning new words sparks the growth of visual and auditory neural pathways. Try reading more books, working through challenging crossword puzzles, or playing Scrabble.
- Sideways, backward, and upside down – Stimulating your brain to read and understand things that aren’t the right way up or around forces your brain to think about what it’s really seeing. Doing handstands, or wearing your watch upside down, can trigger new ways of thinking and seeing.
- Read aloud – There’s a reason parents and grandparents read stories to little ones. When the same word is spoken, read, and heard, three distinct areas of the brain light up, engaging the imagination and enhancing neural development.
- Teach a new skill to someone else – What do you know that others don’t, but are interested in learning? Teaching is one of the best ways to enhance learning because it requires you to explain the concepts you’ve learned and correct any mistakes in your own understanding.
- Exercise – You knew this one was coming. Taking care of your body is crucial to having a strong, resilient, and creative mind. Regular movement and stretching may even increase neurogenesis or the formation of brain cells in the hippocampus.
Habits that sap brain power
So much for things that boost brainpower. What saps our cognitive abilities?
If sleeping helps you build stronger neural connections, lack of sleep does the opposite. Bad sleeping habits can be detrimental not only to your focus and productivity but to your health and wellbeing—including how strong and dependable the wiring in your brain is for particular tasks.
Social media is useful in our personal and professional lives. However, it can also be a debilitating distraction and lead to doomscrolling—a term that refers to the way we immerse ourselves in bad news, pouring our productivity and creativity down the drain.
You’ve heard us talking about the negative of multi-tasking before, and how it’s a barrier to productive, mindful, focused work. The need to constantly switch between the two (or three!) tasks at hand reduces the brain’s ability to focus and remember crucial information. On top of that, attention residue (where you’re trying to remember something about the previous task after you’ve moved to another one) clouds your concentration. Multi-tasking doesn’t just eat up your time and focus; over time, it also eats up your brain’s ability to function optimally!
Your body needs to take a break from sitting in front of a screen. Your mind also needs to rest from work and be bored from time to time. Like building muscle, the connections in your brain need downtime to do their work. Never taking breaks, or letting your work day linger beyond the end-of-day set at your workplace may result in overworking your brain, undoing the new learning and growth you’ve made that day.
Tools that help your brain
Building a better brain doesn’t need to be a hard or lonely journey. Below are three of our favorite tools for increasing brainpower (including Freedom, of course!).
- Brain HQ: Not just another brain game app, Brain HQ is a “personal gym, where you exercise your memory, attention, brain speed, people skills, intelligence, and navigation”. It’s designed by neuroscientists to give your brain a workout, making it stronger, better, and more productive.
- Lumosity: This app gives your brain exercises and teasers that keep your mind challenged and growing. The science-backed program adapts itself to your needs and preferences, providing a one-of-a-kind platform that’s fun and effective. The feedback and reports on your performance after each session give insight into your strengths and weaknesses, and suggestions for improvement.
- Freedom: Freedom is an all-in-one tool for blocking out distracting apps and websites, building creative and useful habits (by setting recurring sessions) and enhancing productivity and focus through Focus Music. Schedule brain-refreshing breaks, use the timer for Pomodoro work sessions, and find freedom at work.
Keeping your brain health in check
Our brains lift a heavy load each day. Even when we’re sleeping at night, it doesn’t quite stop running. Our brains regulate bodily functions, interpret sensory information, and process our emotions and thoughts. It gives in to distractions. It is also where our memory, intelligence, and creativity are found.
With the help of the tips in this article and a good routine that includes brain-boosting activities and smart study habits, you can expect your brain power and productivity to soar!