While the idea that we use just 10 percent of our brain is untrue, there are ways to improve our cognitive function and train our brains to work more efficiently
It's a widespread belief that we only use about 10pc of our brain and what an attractive notion this is. It suggests that if only we were to harness the other 90pc, there would be no stopping us. We could speak several languages fluently, play the stock exchange successfully, read the Greek classics in the original and achieve world domination.
Unfortunately, this figure of 10pc isn't true in the least because all areas of the brain have a function and most of the brain is active all the time. The persistence of the 10pc myth is perplexing, although its source is thought to be the American psychologist William James, who said that people only use a fraction of their brain potential.
So, the bad news is that the likelihood of you being an untapped genius isn't great. The good news is that you can train the brain to become a well-oiled machine - you can have a sharper memory, perform better at maths, climb the career ladder and learn to problem-solve - and you can do it in myriad ways.
1 Get physical and put on a playlist
We're well aware of the necessity of getting regular exercise and the benefits extolled are usually in relation to the body. But exercise really benefits the mind too because it releases oxygen flow to the brain, making you mentally sharper, as well as releasing chemicals that help with decision-making, problem-solving, reaction times, quantitative skills and overall brain function. It also acts on the molecular structure of the brain itself, increasing neurons' creativity.
2 Don't limit your own possibilities
It's not what you have but how you use it when it comes to brain power. Quite often, we'll decide we can't do something or we're 'bad' at something and not investigate any further because we think it's impractical to even attempt it.
Motivational speaker Jim Lawless, who recently spoke at the Berocca Brain Boost seminar in Dublin, advises against ruling yourself out of any race too quickly. "The answer is, we don't know what 'realistic' really is and my approach to it always is that if it's an important enough path for me to walk down, then start walking down it," he says. "Any goal, however unrealistic, will have goals and staging posts along the way to it. It's not unrealistic to want a record deal but if you can't entertain the local pub with your guitar and your voice for an hour-and-a-half, then you've got some work to do on that level before you move on any further."
3 Get stretching
Yoga is an amazing de-stresser and although we don't tend to associate things that help us wind down with more acute mental faculties, yoga appears to help your brain work better. According to a study from 2013, published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, researchers asked 30 college students to complete cognitive exercises and got them to conduct them without working out the first time; then doing them after a 20-minute walk the second time and then for a third time to do them after a 20-minute hatha yoga session. The researchers found that yoga was the most successful in focussing and processing information.
4 Have more sex
You don't necessarily have to tackle Sudoku and play memory games to get smarter -although these work - but there might be more fun ways. The less cerebral act of physical union could offer the same benefits. Last year researchers in Maryland found that middle-aged rats produced more brain cells after they had sex. The caveat to this, however, was once the sexual activity stopped, the brain power improvements were lost. The lesson is clearly to keep at it.
5 Write a letter
It's more than just nostalgia to call for a revival in the lost art of handwriting. According to several studies, writing stimulates the brain. It's different to typing because it requires certain movements to create a letter rather than just hitting a key and this movement stimulates the language, memory and thinking parts of the brain. Professor Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, found that children who wrote instead of using a keyboard produced more words and had more ideas when writing essays.
6 Have some food for thought
It's not as straightforward as eating yourself smarter but there are many nutritional boxes that should be ticked so that your brain is operating at maximum capacity. Low-carbing? While ditching the refined sugar is excellent for many aspects of health, the brain needs glucose to function and slow-releasing wholegrains - brown rice, pasta - are good for this.
Essential fatty acids, found in oily fish, are also necessary for a healthy brain, while blueberry consumption has been linked in studies as being helpful for delaying and improving short-term memory loss. Look to spices too - cinnamon has been linked to preventing Alzheimer's while coriander and cumin are thought to boost memory. The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study which suggests that a good amount of vitamin E might help prevent cognitive decline so it's a good idea to up your intake of olives, nuts and leafy green vegetables, all rich sources of vitamin E.
7 Practise makes perfect
It's about trying and trying again. It's no big reveal that if you put your mind to something, and practise, practise, practise - whether that's figuring out an algebra theorem or learning conversational French - you'll more than likely be able to do so. You can train your brain to operate in certain ways but there's no magic bullet for it. In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell who studied the lives of extremely successful people, says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.
8 Don't use a calculator
When was the last time you sat down and figured out a numerical problem without the help of technology? The brain needs to be stimulated and doing some mathematics is an excellent way of doing so. It doesn't have to be sums; doing a crossword or puzzle, reading a newspaper article, visiting a museum, doing arts and crafts, travelling somewhere new will have similar beneficial effects. A significant study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that seniors who were mentally active reduced their risk of dementia by as much as 75pc in comparison to those who didn't stimulate their minds.
9 Be curious
An essential part of keeping your mind in top shape is that you continue to learn something new throughout your life. Unfortunately for many of us, this can stop after school and college but studies indicate that the more we learn and continue to learn, the happier our brains are. It's about taking on new challenges, even if they scare us, and embracing something new. Also wanted to learn piano but worried that you've left it to late to learn? Do it now. The same applies if you can't drive or swim cook or know how to rewire a plug.
10 Get enough shut eye
If you wanted to do just one thing to make you boost your brain it should be to get sufficient sleep because it's the time when memories are consolidated. If you learn something or read something and then have a good night's sleep, your memory recall the next day will be far better than if you're sleep deprived. Don't neglect naps either. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, found that an hour's nap could dramatically boost brain power.
11 Keep up your social networks
The next time you spend half-an-hour gossiping with a friend or get into an animated discussion about Eastenders in the pub, you can congratulate yourself that you're doing your brain a big favour. Staying connected with people, whether that's on the phone or meeting up, has enormous health benefits overall, and is linked to longer life expectancies and lower blood pressure. Don't interact with people and it's going to affect your cognitive skills. A study from Harvard of more than 2,800 people aged 65 and over found that those with at least five social ties, including family, social groups and church - were less likely to suffer cognitive decline than those with social ties.
12 Ditch the habits that are killing you
There's no question that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. If you're looking for more reasons to quit, you might be interested to learn that it's also damaging your mind too. A study published in the journal Stroke in 2013 found that smoking resulted in a cognitive decline in people as young as 35 and that smoking more than 15 cigarettes a day reduces the ability for critical thinking and memory by 2pc.
While excessive alcohol actually doesn't kill brain cells, it does inhibit the growth of new ones and has a negative impact on how the brain functions. Unlike beer or spirits, red wine has been linked to a lower risk of dementia, possibly because of the polyphenols it contains, which protects brain cells.
13 Laugh a lot
Certainly, a great old giggle releases endorphins, which create a feel-good factor. Specifically in relation to the brain, it could also boost memory. A small study in California which sought to determine if watching a humorous video had an effect on short-term memory in an older population found that it did.
14 Do some neurobics
These mental exercises, designed to get the brain working, were created by professor of neurobiology Lawrence C Katz. The idea behind them is that shaking up your daily routine will fire up the brain by stimulating underused nerve pathways. The exercises use your five physical senses and emotional sense in unanticipated ways, they're easy to employ in everyday life and they're a bit of fun. Suggested neurobics are shopping at a different supermarket than your usual one; talking a different route to work, reading a magazine that you'd usually never pick up and brushing your teeth using the other hand to normal.
15 Avoid stress at all costs
A little stress is a necessary thing. A lot of stress is bad. Studies have shown that long-term stress and accompanying levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause long-term changes in the brain's function with chronic stress affecting memory, emotion and learning. Stress management techniques are within everyone's reach so book a massage, hit the gym or learn to say 'no'.
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