Even though the brain is an organ, rather than a muscle, you can still give your brain a workout. Just as with a muscle, repetitive tasks can dull or even damage your mental acuity, while new challenges and activities can strengthen your brain and even make you measurably smarter. Get ready for your workout!
Exploit your weakness.
This first challenge will seem counterintuitive, but there’s good science to support it. If you’re a morning person who's most productive and alert early in the day, try tackling a creative task late at night, and vice versa for you night owls. You’ll discover that this stress on your brain—asking it to work hard at a time when you usually don’t—can yield surprisingly good results. It works best for creative tasks, rather than analytic tasks, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish when you work at what isn’t your typically optimum time.
Play memory games.
Whether it’s a low-tech matching game or a high-tech solution like Lumosity, actively working to improve your memory produces measurable results. Memory really is key to not just appearing, but also being smart. Imagine if you could recall everything you’ve ever learned. That may never happen, but if you can train your brain to be able to recall even a small portion of the things you’re currently forgetting, you’ll be smarter and more efficient.
Mnemonics work, and they also help to stretch your brain to create and use new associations. Working on remembering the names of people you’ve just met, for example, can include associating their name with their profession or their interests. Andrew the architect or Louise the lawyer forces your brain to work just a bit harder and results in you not fumbling for that name when you need to make an introduction—win-win!
Raise your eyebrows.
Trust me. While you may want to practice this tip privately rather than on the subway, you’ll be pleased. You may feel silly, but as soon as you try this tip, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Raising your eyebrows opens your eyes wider, resulting in a slight adrenaline boost. You’ll instantly feel brighter and more alert.
Read books that push your boundaries.
It’s okay to take small steps on this one, but reading is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Maybe you just commit to turn off the TV (which is much more passive than reading) and pick up a book—any book—once in a while. Perhaps you branch out from your usual style of book. The point is to read something that’s different from your usual fare because if you broaden your reading horizons, you’re getting smarter. Swap your usual sci-fi for history occasionally, or trade your fluff for a classic from time to time. The point is to get out of your reading rut.
Try new hobbies.
Experiment with new enterprises that direct your focus and attention in a way that’s new to you. Mastering a new mechanical task—anything from knitting to tennis—develops new territory in your brain. Any new challenge you undertake will create new associations and force your brain to accommodate new information and new routines.
Organs require nourishment—ideally you should strive for a balanced diet, because a brain that’s starving isn’t growing. Even healthy, well-nourished folks can benefit from additional help from time to time, and supplements like ginkgo biloba can help improve your concentration, improve your memory and increase your attention span.
Exercise improves absolutely everything. Not only will you feel better if you get regular exercise, but exercise improves circulation throughout your body, moving protein and nutrients to your brain. Strong body, strong mind!
Get enough sleep.
Like exercise, adequate sleep improves every facet of your life. Operating with a sleep deficit can actually be dangerous, and in fact, studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation can result in symptoms that mimic intoxication. One technique that can specifically increase your brain activity while you sleep is to eat a small snack before going to sleep—something with a little natural sugar, like a piece of fruit. That snack will keep your brain more active while your body rests up, and that active brain will be growing stronger.
Thinking of your brain as a muscle is actually a great analogy, even if it’s not technically accurate. If you don’t exercise a muscle, it weakens; it atrophies. If you exercise that muscle in exactly the same way over and over, day in and day out, the muscle won’t atrophy, but it won’t grow or develop. If you consistently use that muscle in new ways, though—if you stretch it, push it and challenge it, you’ll grow that muscle and make it stronger. That’s exactly the way the brain works. Challenge your brain in new ways as often as possible, and you’ll be stronger and smarter than you were the day before.
Read more articles about productivity.
Photos from top: Thinkstock