It often seems like everything you do, touch, or eat can make you smarter or dumber. But that's not quite the case.
There are, of course, plenty of ways to tweak your life in order to gain yourself a little cognitive advantage over the competition. The problem is that some have very little real effect. Others are more trouble than they're worth. Here's a guide to some of the most effective ways to boost your brain power.
There's a rapidly accumulating body of knowledge that suggests that physical exercise not only keeps your mind clear, but boosts intelligence, too. A study from the University of South Carolina, for instance, demonstrated that mitochondria—the tiny structures in cells that provide the body with energy—are created not just in muscles when you work out, but in your brain, too. The effect is that your brain is able work faster and more efficiently after exercise. And for any doubters who might suggest that such a phenomenon is placebo—research has recently proven that exercise's effects on intelligence are in fact biologically causal.
While you're considering getting your fitness levels up, you may also want to rethink how you fuel your body. Stuffing your face with junk might stave off hunger pangs, but it sure ain't keeping you alert. It turns out that that fish, berries and antioxidants delay cognitive decline, omega-3 oils can help regenerate brain cells and even just keeping your blood glucose levels even throughout the day—by snacking on nuts and the like—will keep your brain performing better. And if you're really desperate, ingesting some of the bacteria found in dirt can speed up your hippocampus.
It's not just what you do to your body that improves the brain, though—your lifestyle choices can have a huge impact, too. While it might sounds ridiculous, what you wear can affect your brain's power to pay attention and perform tasks accurately. One recent study, for instance, had scientists perform Stroop tests—a simple psychological test which measures mental vitality—when wearing white coats, and when dressed normally. Turns out they did twice as well at the test when wearing the white coat. Interestingly, the team found that the effect didn't remain when the participants were told they were wearing an artist's coat—which suggests that any item of clothing that you perceive as being worn by intelligent, successful people will have an effect on your cognitive powers.
Getting a good night's sleep is another essential behavior that can maximize brain power. To get control of your sleep cycles, approach the process in stages. First tackle short-term behaviors, like limiting alcohol, avoiding caffeine in the evenings, and reconfiguring the bedroom furniture. Then, chart a path to long-term changes like anticipating sleep deprivation and sticking to a scheduled daily routine.
While you're altering your behaviors, you might also want to bulk-out your record collection. There have been plenty of studies researching the Mozart effect—which suggests that listening to classical music boosts brain power—with mixed results. But the general consensus seems to be that any music that you like listening to can contribute to a boost in dopamine levels in the brain, which is generally thought to improve cognition.
There is, of course, a reason why most intelligent people seem a bit... odd. It's because the two go together hand-in-hand. Fortunately, a couple of the tics commonly exhibited by brainiacs can actually help you out if you just copy them. First, you simply must start talking to yourself. A recent study demonstrated that repeating words helps the mind concentrate on what you're repeating—in fact, it can even help you find things. In tests, the researchers showed that people can find objects—like a tin on a superstore shelf—much faster if they just repeat the name of the product they're looking for.
If that sounds like child's play, then why not embrace your inner kid and set aside some work time to daydream? Work right out of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science confirms that working memory capacity—the kind you use for temporary storage of information during longer tasks—is much higher in people who daydream. The best part? Working memory is directly correlated with IQ—people who daydream are in fact smarter.
If all this fails, of course, then it's time to get radical. First off, how about a little DIY transcranial direct current stimulation? Through military testing, DARPA has shown that TDCS can make you better at computer games and the US Air Force has also shown that it can cut pilot training duration in half. In the past, we've explained that it should—in theory—be possible to use a 9V battery to achieve similar results in the comfort of your own home. You're on your own here, though—in practice it's a dumb idea, and we take no responsibility for the results.
Which leaves the worst case solution: real, hard work. You see, as you age, the part of your intelligence that really struggles to continue working as efficiently is known as fluid intelligence—it's the ability to think abstractly, reason, and solve problems. And that stuff is important. But psychologists at the University of Michigan have shown that performing N-back exercises—which require you to remember how far back you saw a symbol or heard a noise in a series—for twenty days can boost your fluid memory for a whole three months. Whether you actually train yourself to be smarter than you ever were using the N-back test is still up for debate—but in the meantime, it can't hurt.
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