Build a beautiful BRAIN
Protecting and expanding your mind is key to a happy life. And it’s much easier than you’d imagine. Just ignore all the brain-training hype and follow these simple steps.
CHANGING YOUR BRAIN IS SIMPLE… THAT’S BECAUSE IT’S LARGELY THE SAME AS WHAT WE NEED TO DO TO IMPROVE THE HEALTH OF THE REST OF THE BODY
Separating the science from the spin is something that fascinates Caroline Williams. In her new book, Override (Scribe, £14.99), the science journalist charts her year-long quest to improve her mind by challenging some of the world’s top neuroscientists to improve her mind. Having identified her key ‘problem areas’ – including a short attention span, poor navigational skills and being ‘bad with numbers’ – Williams set out to see what could be changed, and what couldn’t.If you suspect the most effective methods are likely to involve high-tech brain stimulation or pricey brain-training computer programmes, think again. In fact, you’re doubtless already doing a lot of the right stuff without realising the effect it’s having. As Williams discovered, changing your brain is surprisingly simple. ‘It’s actually very easy,’ she insists. ‘And that’s because it’s largely the same as what we need to do to improve the health of the rest of the body.’ Here’s what worked for Williams – could it work for you too?
See? We did say you were’ probably doing some of the right things already. ‘Despite all the ‘ brain-training hype, physical exercise has proven to be the best thing anyone can do for their brain,’ says Williams. ‘It not only improves blood flow, which brings all the fuel and oxygen it needs, but also stimulates the release of various factors that stimulate the growth of new neurons, and lowers the threshold at which the brain makes new connections This suggests that regular exercise makes it more likely that whatever you learn will stick.’It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do – although it may help to pick up the pace, according to a recent study at the University of Kansas. Researchers Analyzed the effect of regular exercise brain function in a group of older adults All saw an improvement in visual-spatial processing, overall attention levels and the ability to concentrate. But those who had pushed themselves, rather than just plodding along, saw the most benefits Taking your workout outdoors may also offer extra brain-building benefits. Just Five minutes of exercise in a green space is enough to significantly lift your mood according to a study analysis published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. And that boost to your mental health is also key to improving your brain power.
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Despite all the state-of- the-art brain-training apps and schemes available, it seems good old meditation is still one of the most effective ways to improve your mind, because it helps get rid of the mental clutter that’s stopping the important stuff from getting in and sticking.‘The easiest way not to boost brain power, but to release what’s already there, is to get rid of anxiety,’ says Williams. ‘In my experience, [anxiety] was robbing me of the brain power I needed to do sums, pay attention, navigate and think creatively. Dealing with this by learning meditation was the best thing I did.’ Williams suggests meditating for 40 minutes once a week and 10 minutes every other day. ‘Or if, like me, you can’t sit still, “moving meditations” such as yoga, swimming or walking might also do the trick.’Need more persuading? Both yoga and meditation are more effective than memory exercises, such as crosswords and computer games, at combating mental decline, according to a recent study at the University of Adelaide.
Mindfulness is key to . maintaining a healthy brain- but a growing body of W,_ S research suggests mindfulness has its clutter-clearing place, too. In particular, letting our minds wander and even being a bit bored provides a gateway to creativity. Think about it: if you sit down with a blank notebook, intent on coming up with a list of brilliant new ideas, chances are you’ll still be staring at a blank page in half an hour’s time. But if you’re staring out of a train window or waiting for the kettle to boil, inspiration is far more likely to strike.In a recent University of Central Lancaster study, students were asked to find creative uses for two polystyrene cups. Prior to the experiment, one group had been asked to copy out numbers from a telephone directory. You guessed it – it was the group who’d been carrying out the boring task who then came up with the most creative ideas.
YOGA AND MEDITATION ARE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN MEMORY EXERCISES AT COMBATING MENTAL DECLINE
4.CHANGE YOUR FILTERS
We’re back to ridding our minds of anxiety now. Along with meditation, Williams swears by a process called cognitive bias modification, which is analysed using a ‘dot-probe, est’. And yes, it’s a kind of computer game. Devised by University of London scientists in 1986, the test measures how strongly your attention is drawn towards and held by specific types of stimuli. If you’re quicker at picking out angry faces instead of smiling ones, for instance, it suggests your anxiety levels are high and you’re always on the lookout for threats.By learning to focus your attention on life’s positives rather than the negatives you’ll become less anxious and free up that all-important brain space. Try focusing on the things you’ve achieved each day – trust us, there will always be something – and don’t dwell on the things you didn’t get round to. Find out more about cognitive bias modification and try it out at rainybrainsunnybrain.com/bbc-horizon.
5.PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE…
Finally, the best way to build a beautiful brain is to keep using it to do the things you want to do rather than relying on others or technology. A lot comes down to confidence:– if you’re convinced you’re ‘bad with numbers’, for instance, you may shy away from doing the household accounts or being the one who divides up the restaurant bill and works out the tip at the end of the evening. But unless you have a go, how will you ever learn or improve? ‘When I got over my fear of maths, there was no better way of improving my skills than to practise,’ says Williams.
FIVE MORE WAYS TO GET SMARTER
LEAVE YOUR PHONE IN YOUR POCKET
‘The average person checks their smartphone up to 85 times a day,’ says consultant neuroradiologist Dr Emer MacSweeney (recognitionhealth. com). ‘This can affect concentration and attention span, making people distracted and making the brain lazy.’
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‘Even in later life, this can improve cognitive performance and memory,’ says Dr MacSweeney. ‘It will also build confidence relieve stress, foster creativity and give a sense of achievement and satisfaction – all of which keep the brain young, active and alert.’
LEARN ANOTHER LANGUAGE
People who are able to speak more than one language are better at saving brainpower and are less prone to distraction, according to a recent study at the University of Montreal.This allows them to perform tasks in the most efficient manner possible.
KEEP IN TOUCH WITH YOUR FRIENDS
‘Socialising with friends and maintaining your friendships helps to reduce anxiety and depression, and improves cognitive sharpness and performance at every stage of your life,’ explains Dr MacSweeney.
TAKE PART IN SPORT
Physical exercise is crucial to the way we think and feel, and can reverse some of the effects of ageing on the brain,’ says wellbeing consultant Robert Hutchinson authentic life company.com). ‘Almost two- thirds of adults have given up on activities they enjoyed in childhood.’
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