Did you know we only use 10% of our brains? A neuroscientist once replied to this question by answering, “Really, what do you do with the other 90%?” The reality is that just reaching for the kettle and filling it with water in the morning causes an explosion of neural activity that uses far more than 10% of the brains capacity.
The 10% question has become an urban myth that refers to a time when science only understood how 10% of how the brain functioned. The other 90% was known as silent functioning.
Although science is making constant discoveries about how the brain works, a complete model is still an incredible long way in the future.
The lack of understanding is demonstrated by a study cited by the New York Times, where a group of students were given classes on how the brain works. Half the pupils were taught that it was possible to get smarter, and the other half were taught that it wasn’t possible.
The group given the positive message were tested on the course work they undertook, and retained 85% of what they had learned. Surprisingly, the group that were told they couldn’t get smarter scored just 54% on the same test.
This suggests that just believing you can make yourself smarter can induce your brain into being better. Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
This means if your brain accepts your beliefs, it will become more cooperative making it easier for the neurons to build more connections. By the way, just reading this article will make you smarter if you believe it.
So clearly wanting to learn is going to make you smarter, because the more you want to do it the better you will get at it. You probably can’t get smarter overnight, but there are plenty of ways that you can encourage and speed this process along.
So let’s take a look at some of the ways you can encourage the brain to stimulate those neurons, and while we can’t promise to make you smarter overnight, these tips will certainly help to stir that grey matter in the right direction.
The Brain And Your Diet
Researchers are discovering how the food we eat affects our moods and memories.
We know that poor diets lead to poor medical health creating conditions like obesity, cardio vascular problems, and diabetes, but less understood is the effect of food on our learning and memory functions.
Studies have shown food preference starts in the womb, so if your mother drank tomato juice while she was pregnant, the chances are you will prefer the flavour of tomatoes to other foods. Our diet choice starts in the womb and will influence our food preferences in early life. This is important because of the brain chemicals that certain foods encourage.
Dopamine is one of the important chemicals that the brain secretes, and it gives us a feeling of pleasure. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is important for reward and motivation.
When we eat a favourite food, the dopamine levels increase, and if you like chocolate you will be well aware of it. The same feeling is experienced by cocaine users. Now if you were to eat too much chocolate, (unlikely I’m sure), your brain will decrease the amount of dopamine produced.
In other words, the brain decreases the effects, and this is what leads to cravings to eat more chocolate to get the same level of dopamine effect. Dopamine is like a reward from the brain for giving it what it needs, but give it too much and the brain slows the dopamine levels.
In 2008, a survey showed that teenagers consume more sugary drinks than other age groups. The dopamine rush extracted from the drinks is initially high, and quickly reduces causing a higher consumption.
The problem with the soft drinks is related to the sugars they contain, which usually are based on fructose corn syrup. Fructose was originally a way to use up excess corn, produced by American farming methods. It is cheap to produce and if made sweet has an addictive quality.
As obesity levels grew, so did an increase in the teenagers’ anxiety and depression. It seems to suggest that long term exposure to this particular type of sugar leads to an increase of stress hormones in the brain, and this makes teenagers susceptible to anxiety and depression at a crucial time in the brain’s development.
In particular a high sugar diet will increase anxiety and depression, and in time this will cause impaired memory. A high fructose diet will not only affect the metabolism, it will also affect the mind.
Our brains are sculpted by what we eat. If it’s too much fat, too much sugar, or just too much, there may be permanent consequences for our brain function. Keeping our brains in shape is one more reason to clean up our diets.
Chemicals That Improve Brain Functions
Throughout human history, the search for a way to boost the brains power has been a holy grail of medicine. In the last hundred years a few promising chemicals have been created and discovered, as we have learnt more about the way our brain functions. These are usually based around chemicals used in medicine to alter brain disorders. They still won’t make you brainier overnight, and in most cases the risks they carry outweigh the benefits, but they do alter the brains chemistry in a way that can be measured.
The chemicals that have been scientifically proven to work can be broken down into 6 categories. All come with serious risks to health, with the exception of caffeine.
Caffeine: is a stimulant has been known for hundreds of years and is probably the most popular brain stimulant known to us. Caffeine will enhance your attention span and keep you alert and aware.
The problem with caffeine is that effects are short lasting, and we soon build up a tolerance. Drinking more coffee will only work as a stimulant until the brain chooses it’s had enough.
Nicotine: Also a stimulant but best known for its lethal side effects, making it addictive and dangerous to our long term health. Ask anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking.
Amphetamine (Benzedrine, Adderall): This was first synthesized in 1887. Amphetamine can enhance attention and memory, by increasing levels of both Norepinephrine and Dopamine in the brain. Amphetamine was the first drug to be used in the treatment of hyperactivity in children. Amphetamine is illegal because it is so dangerous, and side effects can be very unpleasant and addictive, including disturbed sleep and dangerous psychosis.
Methylphenidate (Ritalin): This drug was first marketed in 1954, and prescribed in the 1960s for treating hyperactivity. In the 1990s it became a popular treatment for ADHD. As with amphetamine, it can improve memory and focus for those with ADHD, but it is also used illegally as a study and work aid. Some individuals build up a tolerance to Ritalin over time.
Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (Aricept): This was approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease in the 1990s. It has been shown in some studies to enhance memory and attention in healthy individuals. Side effects are unknown because it hasn’t been used for long enough.
Modafinil: Originally used to treat narcolepsy, a disorder where sufferers can fall asleep at any moment. It has also been shown to enhance cognitive function, especially when completing difficult tasks, and may well enhance intelligence and concentration. Although this is currently the most promising brain enhancer, no one including the chemists who discovered it are quite sure how it works! This makes it almost impossible to predict its long term effects and side effects.
Should We All Take Cognition-Enhancing Supplements?
Taking a supplement to enhance our brains seems simple enough, and most people would welcome the benefits of taking a pill to become clever.
Many nootropic supplements contain chemicals and vitamins already present in the body, as well as nutritional ingredients that we need, so boosting these levels may be effective. You can get many of these nutrients from food but taking a supplement is more convenient, and of course will deliver more in some cases.
However each person has slightly different brain chemistry, so every time you take a new supplement you have to be aware of how it is reacting with your body.
It is also important to check with your medical practitioner about how a supplement will react with prescription drugs you may be taking, especially if you have a previously identified medical condition.
This might work for you as long as you are prepared to research the long term effects and risks. The Nootropics world is regularly developing new versions of brain enhancers, and some of these seem to be working for many people.
What Other Ways Are There To Improve Brain Power?
At the beginning of this article we mentioned that one study had shown that if you believe you can be more intelligent, then you will actually become smarter!
It might seem like a well meaning self help book, but because there is so much left to discover about the brain’s potential, this path may also prove to be a realistic way of upping the brain power by creating new neural paths.
If you incorporate new experiences into your life, they can actually cause your brain to create new neural pathways. When we break away from our routines, we have to use new thinking methods to evaluate and help our new experiences.
This process actually makes new neural pathways, and will promote brain stimulation. In science this is known as Neuroplasticity, and it seems that this is good exercise for the brain. The brain needs exercise like every other organ, and stimulating it also encourages it to grow.
Travel broadens the mind is an old adage that can really work for improving the brain’s activity. When you travel many things that are habitual, change and it is difficult to fall back on pre learned habits. For example if you travel to a country that uses a language that you are unfamiliar with, then even ordering breakfast will challenge your brain on many levels. New sights, sounds, and experiences can all be pleasurable, as well as taking you out of your familiar comfort zone, causing your brain to create new neural pathways.
Exploring your own creativity is another good way to get the brain cells buzzing. If you have a creative hankering then just do it. Art, writing, reading, or playing an instrument, or really anything that gets you motivated to use your brain will work.
If you feel you would like to learn a new skill then do it! Get some tuition, take a class, or just motivate yourself to learn new things will encourage neuroplasticity.
Challenge yourself to find new and perhaps more fun ways to be creative at home or work. Finding ways to simplify tasks and make better value judgements will improve your brain power and your workflow. The same can be applied to daily tasks at home, where regular chores can be organised in new ways that benefit both your home and save you time.
Nature, if you have access to a garden, just being in touch with nature allows your brain to appreciate the world as a whole, and not something separate from yourself.
Observing and working with nature has been a source of wisdom for generations, and will activate the brain with the added bonus of reducing anxiety and depression. Gardening is used to help treat many patients with depression and anxiety, and has been shown time after time to have significant benefits.
The brain is an organ, and like all our other organs, it needs to be given the correct nutrients and exercise to function properly and grow. The brain is constantly active, and is constantly changing its biology and growth, because at a cellular level it is creating new neural pathways and removing old ones.
After all, your brain should be your best friend because it needs what you need. Good exercise and the right nutrients are important for brain growth and brain functioning, and in the long run the more you exercise your brain, the more you can achieve. You can’t get smarter overnight, but each day you help it function well, it will become more efficient. Use it or lose it.
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