1. Learn what the “It” is in “Use It or Lose It”. A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain’s beauty as a living and constantly developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses. "Know thyself," also applies here. What do you do that negatively impacts your performance? Here are two "brain drainers":
- high-levels of anxiety and stress are guaranteed to distract us from our main goals and waste our limited mental energies.
- a very repetitive and routine-driven life, lacking in novelty and stimulation. We have brains to be able to learn and to adapt to new environments
The trick therefore, is to take on new challenges that are not way too difficult/ impossible, and learn how to manage stress to prevent anxiety from kicking-in.
2. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don’t need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don’t stuff yourself with the “bad stuff”.
The bottom line is that foods that are good for our body are also good for our brain. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and tuna have shown some brain benefits. There is contraditory data on Ginkgo Biloba and most other supplements. The best “brain food” is, literally, mental stimulation.
3. Remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: physical exercise enhances neurogenesis. Our brains are composed of different areas and functions, and we can strengthen them through mental exercise– or they get atrophied for lack of practice. Physical exercise is important because it influences the rate of creation of new neurons in our brains. The benefits are both short term (improved concentration and memory, sustained mental clarity under stressful situations…, and long-term (creation of a “brain reserve” that help protect us against potential problems such as Alzheimer’s).
- For stress management: a 5-minute visualization, combining deep and regular breathings with seeing in our mind’s eye beautiful landscapes and/ or remembering times in our past when we have been successful at a tough task
- For short-term memory: try a series subtracting 7 from 200 (200 193 186 179…), or a series involving multiplication (2,3 4,6 6,9 8,12…) or exponential series (2 4 8 16 32 64…) the goal is not to be a math genius, simply to train and improve our short-term memory. Another way is to try and remember our friends telephone numbers.
- In general: try something different every day, no matter how little. Take a different route to work. Talk to a different colleague. Ask an unexpected question. Approach every day as a living experiment, a learning opportunity.
4. Practice positive, future-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to every new day in a constructive way. Stress and anxiety, no matter whether induced by external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. You can think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons.
5. Thrive on Learning and Mental Challenges. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do crossword puzzle a a day″. It means, “challenge your brain often with fundamentally new activities”.
“Use it or lose it” may be misleading if we think that “It” is just one thing. The brain is composed of many different areas that focus on different things. Doing a crossword puzzle only activates a small part of the brain. The 3 key principles for good brain exercises are: novelty, variety and constant challenge. Not that different from cross-training our bodies.
The first time we do a crossword, or sudoku or knitting, that is great, because it forces us to learn. But when doing it is completely routine, the marginal benefit is very limited. Nowadays neuropsychologists do not recommend paper-based activities but computer-based brain exercise software programs, since they can provide a variety of new activities all the time, always tailored with a proper increasing level of challenge.
6. We are (as far as we know) the only self-directed organisms on this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from high school and college, keep learning. The brain keeps developing, no matter your age, and it reflects what you do with it.
7. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.
8. Don’t Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbor… Make your own decisions, and mistakes. And learn from them. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbor’s.
9. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We are “social animals”, and need social interaction. Which, by the way, is why ‘Baby Einstein’ has been shown not to be the panacea for children's brain development.
10. Laugh. Often. Especially to cognitively complex humor, full of twists and surprises. Better, try to become the next Jon Stewart
Now, remember that what counts is not reading this article, but practicing a bit every day until small steps snowball into unstoppable, internalized habits…so, pick your next battle and try to start improving at least one of these 10 habits today. Revisit the habit above that really grabbed your attention, click on the link to learn more,and make a decision to try something different today