In today’s frenzied world, everyone it seems is trying to do more, do better, and find some way to get ahead. People are looking for ways to enhance their performance, improve their productivity, and push their cognitive limits to allow them to get a little more done each day.
Some people are experimenting with prescription medications used off-label and neuro-enhancing supplements, referred to as smart drugs, to boost their mental abilities. According to a report by Telegraph, 25% of the students of prominent UK universities have tried mind-augmenting substances in an effort to gain a competitive edge. The safety of using these substances is questionable along with the benefits.
In one BBC News article, Professor John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation at The University of Manchester, says these drugs do give people a slight mental edge, but:
They have a similar effect to hard work and coffee. Physical exercise also has the same effect. They are all, to an extent, cognitive enhancers. If you’re not a genius before, you won’t be afterward.
You don’t have to resort to smart drugs to help your brain step up its performance. There are many other ways to get an added mental boost and have fun while you’re doing it. Below are eight natural ways to improve your mental power.
Play video games
Video gaming usually gets a bad rap, but it’s not all bad. On the downside, studies have shown that gaming can be addictive and increase as depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, and poor concentration. However, playing video games has also proven to have numerous mental benefits. The habit can also make your brain smarter, better, faster, and stronger.
Research has also shown that gaming improves hand-eye coordination and problem-solving and decision-making skills. It has even proven to increase neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, brain size and connectivity.
Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist, conducted experiments showing that people who played action-based video games reacted faster and had better focus. They also exhibited an ability to analyze different situations rapidly. Dr. Bavelier was careful to point out that:
Overindulging in anything is harmful, but action-packed shooter games can have powerful, positive effects on behavior.”
Make some music
Science has shown that musical training can change brain structure and function for the better. It can also improve long-term memory and lead to better brain development for those who start at a young age.
Surprisingly, learning to play an instrument even strengthens verbal memory and reading skills. A 2011 study at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Northwestern University concluded that both musical ability and literacy are biologically correlated via common neural and cognitive mechanisms.
Research in cognition also established a strong link between fluid intelligence and learning a musical instrument. In 2004, psychologist Glenn Schellenberg demonstrated that music lessons enhance a person’s IQ. His research found that participants who were musically-trained displayed significant improvement in cognitive functioning.
Build your muscles
Increasing your muscle strength also has beneficial effects on your mental muscle as well.
The Faculty of Health Sciences, Sydney University conducted a study, in collaboration with the University of Adelaide and University of New South Wales which they called the Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART). The SMART trial linked muscle training to an enhanced mental ability in people over the age of 55 with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
MCI symptoms include reduced cognitive abilities, which are a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. With 135 million people anticipated to suffer from dementia by the year 2050, these findings are significant. Resistance training can result in a healthier aging population.
Reading has always been regarded as a great hobby. Science has now proven that reading – especially fiction – has great brain benefits. Reading improves your brain connectivity and function which can translate into better focus and concentration, writing skills and creativity. Reading can quite literally shape a child’s brain. It also reduces stress, enhances empathy, and more.
Research further confirms that people who engage their minds in mentally stimulating reading activities experience slower memory decline. It also can make makes you smarter by enhancing verbal skills and the ability to reason.
Get your groove on
Dancing is euphoric and uplifting. It can be energizing or impart tranquility depending on the dance form. It is also often praised for its health benefits as a form of physical exercise. More recently though, studies have discovered that dancing also has cognitive advantages too.
A report from New England Journal of Medicine assessed the influence of recreational activities on participant’s mental health. They examined how frequently 469 subjects older than 75 years of age, who didn’t have dementia at the baseline, participated in leisure activities, like playing board games, dancing, and reading. The study concluded that dancing frequently stimulates the mind and was most effective in staving off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Research has also shown that getting your groove on has other brain benefits, including improved social skills and mood and even reversing depression.
Take a nap
There is a strong reason behind Google encouraging its employees to take a nap in their futuristic, soundproof sleep pods. It promotes intellectual performance and improves work performance.
Various studies allude to the fact that daytime napping is beneficial for people of all ages. Research confirms that daytime naps help improve memory, while other studies show that even napping for just ten minutes has brain benefits. Another study investigated the effects of short naps on the quality of the sleep as well as mental health of older adults. The results concluded that seniors who napped exhibited better cognitive and physical health.
Dark chocolate has many amazing health benefits. It can improve cardiovascular health, is excellent for overall cholesterol profile, and is an antioxidant-rich super food. Also, the caffeine, flavonoids, and theobromine in dark chocolate are believed to work together to augment alertness and mental ability.
According to one study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009, dark chocolate, rich in flavonoids, can improve cognitive functioning, especially in the elderly. Intake of flavanol-rich cocoa is also beneficial for increased blood circulation to the cerebral gray matter, which can make you smarter.
Mind-body practices like meditating are effective in reducing your body’s stress levels as it strengthens your ability to relax and lowers stress hormones like cortisol. And anything that reduces stress is good for your brain. Chronic stress literally damages your brain and can make you forgetful and emotional while increasing your susceptibility to anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s and many mental illnesses.
Mindfulness and meditation have many brain benefits short and long-term.
Brain tests via MRI scans showed that after performing mindfulness practices for just eight weeks, the brain’s fight or flight center, the amygdala, appeared to shrink which leads to reduced depression and anxiety. While the amygdala gets smaller, the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for higher-order brain functions like concentration, alertness, and decision-making, grows and becomes thicker with meditation. These brain changes from meditating lead to better cognitive functioning.
Numerous techniques can make you more alert, improve your concentration and facilitate your decision-making skills. However, they are only effective if you practice them regularly and continually to achieve neuroplastic change and long-term results. You’ll see more benefits by implementing several of the above brain building practices simultaneously. However, don’t let that stop you. One is better than none.
Guest Author Bio
Erica Silva is a blogger who loves to discover and explore the world around her. She writes on everything from marketing to technology, science and brain health. She enjoys sharing her discoveries and experiences with readers and believes her blogs can make the world a better place.