Building a better brain
Brain expert Dr Jenny Brockis explains why we should do Sudoku and learn languages – and why the best thinking comes from a calm, rested brain.
We’ve been talking about the need for greater physical health for decades. We know how important healthy eating and exercise are – but until recently, better brain health hasn’t been included in the equation. The primary reason is that our understanding of the human brain is still very much in its infancy.
Fortunately we now have a wealth of neuroscientific information available to us at this critical time when the burden of multiple chronic medical conditions in a rapidly ageing population, along with spiralling levels of stress, anxiety and depression, desperately need sorting out.
There are a number of lifestyle elements that contribute to brain fitness: good food, exercise, enough sleep, mental challenge and stress management. If you have a healthy brain, you start to think better. It’s easier to stay focused, keep things in perspective, stay positive and be more mindful.
Brain fitness is crucial to health and wellbeing across the trajectory of our lifespan. That means if we teach our kids how to build healthier brains they will grow into brain healthy adults.
"Brain fitness is about continuing to learn new things that with practice we can get better at. Learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument or signing up for a photography class are all great ways to stretch your mental muscle."
How to keep your brain strong
Healthy food is important for nourishing your brain, and regular exercise keeps your brain fit as well as your body. Along with these healthy habits, there are some strategies you can use to reduce the effects of stress and brain overload, and to keep your neural connections strong.
Here are some things to try:
1. Reduce stress
Look for ways to manage stress levels by practising relaxation and taking time out. Tai chi, yoga, pilates and meditation are perfect ways to de-stress your day.
2. Create some breathing space
We need time to think, to pause and reflect. So switch off from all that technology regularly and give your brain a break. A 15 minute session to still your mind is all it takes – turn off your phone, close the door and just be.
3. Stretch your mental muscle
Practise being a five-year-old. Be curious about the world, ask questions, explore and try out new activities, especially those you don’t think you will necessarily be any good at. The more effort we apply to our learning the stronger those new neural connections will be. Many of us carry limiting self-beliefs: “I’m no good at (insert here – art, maths, dancing, etc)”. But if you feel drawn to trying something, give it a go anyway – you might surprise yourself.
Brain fitness is about continuing to learn new things that with practice we can get better at. Learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument or signing up for a photography class are all great ways to stretch your mental muscle. And the best thing is, the more we use that muscle the stronger it gets.
4. Connect with people
Staying connected and engaged with our world has been shown to be vital to our health and wellbeing on both a physical and mental level. Joining a club or volunteering are two ways we can widen our group of contacts.
"Break up your work session into blocks of 25 to 90 minutes, and take regular brain breaks of 15 to 20 minutes in between."
The brain in focus
Much of my work is centred around the "science of high performance thinking." A high performance brain is a brain that is operating to its true capacity. It’s not about being the best – just your best. It’s about the idea that if we look after our brain, and use it in the way it was designed to operate, we get more done, at a higher level and with fewer mistakes. This leads us to feel less stressed and enjoy a greater sense of achievement and happiness.
Here are three things about brain performance that might surprise you:
1. Multitasking is the one brain function that gets worse with practice
We multitask because we think we can, we think we’re good at it and we think it will save us time and energy. Sadly, this is wrong on all levels.
The brain is designed to be able to focus on only one thing at a time. While we can divide our attention and undertake lots of activities simultaneously, only one can really have our full focus. Trying to multi task exhausts our brain, causes us to make more mistakes, reduces memory, and causes us to take longer to finish our work.
2. We’re not designed for long periods of focus
When we’re working, studying, or focusing on a big task, it’s tempting to think we should switch our brain into overdrive and keep going all day long. But like everything else, our brain needs regular breaks to allow our subconscious to consolidate our thoughts, prioritise what needs to be kept for long-term memory and reboot our mental energy levels.
So what should we do instead? Break up your work session into blocks of 25 to 90 minutes, and take regular brain breaks of 15 to 20 minutes in between.
3. Our best thinking comes from a rested brain
Getting enough good quality, uninterrupted sleep each night is essential for better brain health and function. Our brain is very active at night – doing important tasks like laying down long term memory, deepening our understanding of what we have learnt, as well as loosening up those synaptic connections no longer required. Understandably, it needs some solid quiet time to get this done.
We also need sleep for better mood and emotional regulation. We only have to deal with a cranky, sleep deprived two-year-old to know how true that is!
Plus, sleeping is the time we take out the brain’s trash. Our brain is highly metabolically active and builds up a considerable amount of waste each day. Sleep allows our brain to give itself a good flush each night, so we’re good to go next morning.