The brain contains everything that makes us who we are. This comprises not only every talent and skill, but also the records of all our experiences, hopes and dreams, the friendships and achievements that give meaning and purpose to our lives.
It’s no wonder then, that with every little ‘brain hiccup’ – forgetting a name, losing our car or house keys (again), a sudden losing streak in our Bridge or Mahjong game – we see our lives slipping away. In fact, many people fear losing their memories more than death itself.
The good news is that although the brain does shrink with age, its remaining capacity is very large. Even with age, most brains can still learn and add new stores of information. Moreover, there are techniques that show you how to increase brain power and maximize your mental abilities. You can train your brain and improve the efficiency of your memory, whatever your age.
How to increase brain power – Age and Experience
The common saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not true. Ageing may have some effect on memory and learning capacity. However, the experience and knowledge store that age brings can compensate for much of this. Moreover, memory improvement techniques can help preserve your mental functions into old age. Using simple aids such as diaries, post-it-notes or electronic reminders can also help counter memory slips.
How to increase brain power – Expand our Interests
As we age, our mental filing cabinets become packed with records of our lives well lived. Yet through it all, the brain makes more complex associations between ideas and puts new learning in the context of a vast store of experience. This means that it becomes easier to take in new information about topics of which we have some knowledge and experience. So someone who plays chess as a hobby for instance, will build on his knowledge of different chess positions and strategies the more he plays. He can draw on this knowledge and experience when he encounter something similar next time, and become a better player.
The same is true of any area of interest, hobby or profession – Stamp collecting, music, politics, medicine, psychology, astrophysics or even television soap operas. Besides helping to maintain your mental abilities, pursuing a new interest will make life more stimulating.
The brain, once a mysterious ‘black box’ that scientists could not decode, is finally revealing some of its biggest secrets. This offers huge promise to anyone who’s worried about “losing it”. Two of the main findings include
(i) We do grow our brain cells
Who doesn’t remember downing one too many glasses in their youth and joking, ‘Well, there goes another thousand brain cells’? Many of us still believe that we start life with billions of brain cells, and then slowly lose them with time (and alcohol). We’ll then have fewer brain cells by our twenties and thirties, and by middle age. But in fact, in a remarkable discovery, scientists have learned that the brain generates new cells every day, in a process called neurogenesis. What really happens is that most new brain cell growth continues until early adulthood, around the age of 18 to 20. Thereafter, new brain cells do grow, but more die off than are replaced, so there is a small and gradual but progressive overall loss of brain cells throughout the rest of adulthood.
The crucial point is that it’s not the number of cells, but the connections between them that matter. Whenever you learn new things, you create new connections between the cells and thus increase the capacity of your brain.
(ii) The more your use your brain, the greater its capacity
The second major new finding is equally encouraging. We used to think of the brain as if it were a fixed electric power grid, like those that send electricity to our cities. When the system gets old or overloaded, power decreases which then leads to. flickering lights and break down of appliances. We believed that age wore down memory and comprehension in a similar way and there was nothing we could do about it.
Today, we know that the brain can continue to adapt and expand its capacity as needed. Not only does it generate new brain cells bit it also creates new connections between those cells in the form of intricate nerve fibres called dendrites. The more connections in your brain, the faster and better you think.
Brain Power Truth (1)
There are more potential connections between the cells in a single brain than atoms in the entire universe. The brain has about 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), and each neuron has up to 1,000 ‘docking points’ where it can connect with others. If all of these potential connections were made, there would be well over 100 thousand billion information exchanging links. In practice, of course, only a tiny fraction of these connections are ever established.
Use it or Lose it
Whether you’re balancing your accounts, learning salsa, or playing gin rummy, your brain’s ‘electricity grid’ lights up like Time Square. Chemical messages travel at speeds of up to several hundred kmh from one nerve cell to the next along ‘cables’ called axons. Waiting to receive all that information are nerve cell ‘branches’ called dendrites. You yourself play the most important role in keeping this network humming.
According to Robert Logie, professor of human cognitive neuroscience at Edinburgh University, learning new skills and new knowledge increases the number of connections in the brain. The more connections there are, the more efficient the brain will be. Forcing our brain to learn new things causes it to sprout more and more dendrites, expanding our capacity to think, learn and remember.
Being mentally lazy – getting stuck in a rut, never trying anything new – has the opposite effect. The brain allows unused neurons to die and ‘prunes’ under-used dendrites, just as a gardener prunes dying branches on a tree.
Brain Power truth (2)
A small number of people possess what memory experts call ‘total recall’. They can remember every detail – what they wore, what they ate, what the weather was like, who visited that day and so on – of any specific day from adolescence onwards. Such memory feats highlight the vast potential of human memory.
Keeping our brains in tip-top shape may even protect against the decline in mental functioning that tends to occur with age. Many studies have shown that higher levels of leisure related mental, physical and social activities are associated with better cognitive health later in life. Of course, it could be that people who choose a more varied and challenging lifestyle are more mentally active to begin with. But taking up or increasing your level of activity does seem to confer benefits. A 2008 review commissioned by the UK government’s foresight project, ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’, noted that cognitive training in later life could improve memory, reasoning and speed of information processing, and that the gains could be long-lasting, for at least 5 years. A multitude of other studies have reached similar conclusions.
Here are simple everyday ways to increase brain power.
Talking – A study found that chatting for 10 minutes a day improves memory and test scores.
Walking – In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looking at data from the US Nurses Study, involving more than 18,000 women, found that long term regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline in older women.
Omega-3 dietary supplement – A study looked at use of omega-3 in 65 older adults showed improvements in the connectivity of the brain, increases in the size of key brain regions and improved cognitive functioning after 26 weeks of use.
How to Increase brain power – Action Plan
What’s the best way to nurture your neurological garden? Small lifestyle tweaks can help you think more clearly, retain information more effectively and concentrate better. It can be as simple as going for a brisk walk, taking an occasional class, or getting enough sleep.
Diet is important. A study published in ‘Archives of Neurology’ suggests that following a Mediterranean diet can provide a powerful defense against mental decline. After 5 years, people who followed this diet – high in fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, moderate in alcohol and low in red meat and dairy products – had a 28% lower risk of cognitive impairment.
Brain Power truth (3)
A ‘happy’ brain can help to fight off infection. The body’s immune system responds directly to changes in the brain. A sad event – such as losing a loved one – can produce a measurable depletion in the number of infection-fighting blood cells for 4 days.
In later articles, I will lay out advice on the best foods to eat for brain health, and what to avoid. Why high cholesterol levels and belly fat can be bad for your brain as well as your heart. You’ll discover why exercise is good for your brain, not just for your body. And how simply getting adequate sleep can almost magically clear up fuzzy thinking. (The ability of test subjects assigned to memorize lists of words improved by 30 percent after a good night’s sleep)
There are also ‘brain villains’ that can rob your brain of its power. How can your protect yourself? Some usual advice: smoking and drinking to excess are just as bad for your brain as they are for the rest of your body. But there are other more surprising findings.
Muddled thinking? Blame it on stress. In one study, stressed medical students performed significantly worse on an important exam. Depression can also rob us of brain power: The symptoms can include foggy memory, difficulty with comprehension, even slurred speech. In elderly people, these symptoms are commonly mistaken for dementia, but mental skills can improve when depression is treated.
How to increase brain power – Cross-train your brain
We’ve probably heard the common advice to take up crossword puzzles and play mahjong or chess to keep the mind fit. That’s a good start. It will definitely make you better at solving cross-word puzzles or playing either game. But that alone won’t help you find your car keys or remember phone numbers and names, says cognitive neuroscientist Robert Logie. Just as runners devote a portion of their training to swimming and cycling, you’ll need to vary the range and difficulty level of your activities if you want to keep your brain in prime shape. Athletes call this cross training
Go through a series puzzles and exercises designed to challenge your brain in the 6 main cognitive areas: attention and focus, general memory, processing speed, verbal skills, number skills and reasoning. I’ll provide some examples in a later article.
Spend a few minutes on them weekly and you should notice improvements in your brain ‘fitness’. Discover everyday strategies to recall names that are always at the tip of your tongue.
There’s evidence that intellectually curious people are more resistant to brain decline. They have what scientists call a cognitive reserve, which means that they have more nerve cells and dendrites than others to begin with. So if their brains eventually suffer damage due to disease such as Alzheimers, they are likely to function well for a longer period. So develop a curious mind for things around you that matter.
Are you now inspired to banish memory slips, chase away brain fogs, sharpen up your concentration and focus, reduce the risk of dementia and boost your self confidence? Look no further. Check out my website in the link below to find out more about how to increase brain power to make the most out of life.
I take a keen interest in personal development and helping people make the most out of life. I believe in life-long learning and self improvement to keep being relevant, meaningful and contributing to society. I have spent many years studying the traits and values of successful people and applying this in my job as a successful fund manager and in my personal life.
To learn more about how to get the most out of life, please visit my website at [http://www.assetmanagementadvisory.com]
By Mark KY Tan
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