Each of our brains is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons, which are constantly active even when we’re asleep. And while our brain only weighs about three pounds, it requires 20 percent of our heart’s output of blood to keep functioning.
Our brain is such a complex organ that experts used to think we only used about 10 percent of it, but neurologists now believe it's possible we use all of it. However, how each area of this vital organ operates is still somewhat of a mystery.
Dani Simmonds, who's studying neuroscience with a focus on teenage brain development at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, says there are three major influences that affect the way our brains function:
1. Stress levels.
Everyone needs a little stress for motivation to exist, but not being able to handle your stress levels effectively will result in chronic stress, which studies have shown can cause brain damage. A new study published by neuroscientists working at the University of California, Berkeley, found that long-term stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can trigger changes in brain structure and lead to mental problems, such as anxiety, mood disorders and even learning difficulties later in life.
When your brain is sleepy, it's incapable of functioning at full capacity and it has to work much harder to process information, especially when it comes to short-term memory recall and concentrating. A sleepy brain impairs your judgment, making you prone to risky decisions. In a study published recently in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers concluded, "A single night of sleep deprivation evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains."
Your brain is the biggest metabolic system in your body, so it needs energy all the time. Exercising increases this energy, elevates cognitive performance and also improves long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving and even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks, which require people to think abstractly.
While long-term lifestyle choices are the key to developing the most productive, healthy brain, below are 11 critical strategies you can employ when you need your brain to perform at its highest level:
1. Create the right environment.
The first step to setting the stage for your brain to work at its optimum capacity involves creating the right environment. Doing so helps encourage the most favorable state of consciousness, according to a study published by Cornell University. While testing different office temperatures at a large insurance company in Florida, study researchers found that warmer temperatures made people happier and more alert. According to the study, "When temperatures were low (69 degrees, or 20 degrees Celsius), employees made 44 percent more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77 degrees, or 25 degrees Celsius)."
As for lighting, natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting helps your brain function at its best. In fact, researchers have found that too much artificial or dim lighting will drop your cortisol levels significantly, which means you'll be more stressed and have less ability to maintain your energy levels.
You should also pay attention to the objects that surround you. Instead of keeping food out that will make you hungry or unused running shoes that will make you feel bad about your neglected fitness routine, surround yourself with objects that trigger creative responses, such as books, photos and inspirational quotes. If your environment is filled with positive triggers, you may find that ideas flow easier.
2. Get the right level of distraction.
When you need nose-down concentration, it might not sound efficient to head to a coffee shop, but studies show that the noise provided by most coffee spots give your brain the right amount of productivity boost it needs. One study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, for instance, found that a small level of distraction (in this case, a coffee shop's ambient background noise of 70 decibels) was just the right formula for heightened focus and creativity.
3. Listen to classical music.
What does music do to your brain? Research says it can improve your mood by increasing dopamine production in the brain, which affects movement, emotional response and the ability to feel happy. One study found that listening to classical music can improve visual attention and that its melody boosts creative reasoning, while rhythm enhances critical thinking.
4. Browse cute baby pictures.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you're distracted, it will do you a lot of good to take a break and browse through cute baby photos—of humans or animals—online. A study conducted by researchers at Hiroshima University in Japan found that these images increased concentration by 44 percent in the study's participants. The reason? It comes down to the way you feel when looking at babies. In these instances, you're paying careful attention to the subject's physical and mental state, which, in turn, makes you more attentive to your own work.
5. Allow yourself to be bored.
The Internet has made it so difficult to be bored that people are now afraid of being alone with their own thoughts. A study recently published in the journal Science found that people will do whatever they can to keep themselves busy, even if it's merely being wedded to their smart devices. Participants from the study said they felt "unpleasant" when in a room alone with their own thoughts for six to 15 minutes.
Allowing yourself to be bored may enhance your creativity. Comedy writer Graham Linehan writes about this boredom in The Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the Internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the Internet has made it very hard to be bored. The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process.”
Further studies suggest that not giving yourself time alone to think impairs your ability to connect and empathize with others.
6. Focus on one task at a time.
You may be under the impression that you're capable of multitasking, but the truth is, you're basically just splitting your brain's power between each task. Researchers say that multitasking forces your brain to frantically switch from one activity to the next and doesn't allow you to truly concentrate on any of the tasks you're trying to tackle.
Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford, told PBS that he was shocked to discover through his research that "multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking." People who do it often are actually worse than those who don't do it at all at filtering irrelevant information.
7. Eat "smart" foods.
If you want to have a healthier brain, you need to include "smart" foods in your daily diet. What you put in your body will enter your bloodstream, flow to the brain, and affect the way you think and feel. The superfoods that help your brain function better include blueberries, salmon, avocados, eggs, caffeine, dark chocolate, yogurt, green tea and whole grains.
As important as it is to consume foods that help your brain, it's also critical to avoid foods that will slow you down and affect your focus and productivity. The foods that will sabotage your productivity include donuts, saturated fats (red meat, butter), turkey, spicy foods, fried foods and processed foods.
8. Spend time in nature.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that taking a walk among trees and nature—as opposed to an urban environment—can improve your short-term memory by 20 percent. According to the study's researchers, "Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative." If you aren't able to take a walk among trees and fields, the researchers suggest looking at pictures of nature to enjoy some of the same benefits.
Just as you exercise to expand your muscles, you can meditate to increase the size of your brain. A 2000 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that meditation increases the size of the brain regions that are associated with focused attention, deep thought and memory. The study says meditation can also help alleviate anxiety, depression, fear and anger.
10. Write it down.
Go ahead and continue crafting those to-do lists. Research shows that writing things down won't just help you remember things—the simple act also creates oxygenated blood flow to areas that can help improve memory.
Writing things down will also help you remember those things more accurately. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist who studies how the brain generates emotions, says that most of our long-term memory is actually rewritten in our brain depending on the emotions we had when we last thought about that memory. In other words, the memory you had of playing with your dog as a child is just a version of the last time you thought about it. The more you write down what you're thinking, the greater you can boost the memory of what you're writing about in your brain.
11. Take a nap.
NASA found that pilots who take 25-minute naps during the day are 35 percent more alert and twice as focused than their non-napping colleagues. Since most people don't often get an adequate amount of sleep each night, naps can help increase performance and a 90-minute nap can improve your memory by as much as 10 percent. Below is a breakdown of how long of a nap you need for a variety of activities, according to researchers:
- Need to be more alert and focused? Take a 10- to 20-minute nap, and you'll get enhanced alertness and focus for the next two hours.
- Hoping to be smarter? Take a 60-minute nap. Although it may cause grogginess, it can also help improve memory and learning.
- Want all the brain power you can get? Take a 90-minute nap, which is how long your brain needs to experience a full sleep cycle. You'll benefit from increased alertness, memory, learning, creativity and performance.
- Need a boost but don't have much time? One study says you should stick with 10 minutes if you need to refresh but don't have a lot of time, since it produces better benefits compared to five-, 20- or even 30-minute naps.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to the human brain, there are things you can do to sharpen, adapt and change the vitality of it. To build a better brain, adopt the right stimulation, which can help form new neural pathways that will increase your cognitive abilities, enhance your ability to learn new information and improve your memory.
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