Five ways to improve your brainpower

16.02.2015 15:21

It used to be thought that the brain was
hardwired and that, unlike other organs, it
could not repair itself or restore lost
functions once damaged or diseased. Now
we know that, in fact, the brain is
neuroplastic – that activity and mental
experience can be used to change the
structure of the connections within it.
These new principles are being used to
radically improve, and even sometimes
cure, some brain problems that were
previously seen as irreversible – and some
of them can also be used in everyday life to
improve our brain’s health and
performance. Here are five things to try.Walk two miles a day
Regular exercise, such as walking, has
been shown to be a key factor in reducing
the risk of dementia by 60%. One reason
may be that when animals go on very long
walks it is usually to seek out a new,
unexplored territory in which to live –
because they are fleeing a predator, or
because food has run out where they live.
The brain, in anticipation of the fact that
the animal is going to have to learn a lot
about this new territory, releases growth
factors, which act like growth-promoting
fertiliser in the brain, allowing it to build
connections between cells more easily as it
Steady walking has the same effect on us,
putting our brains in a more neuroplastic
state. Brutal exercise is not needed: the
amount required to contribute to a lower
risk of dementia is walking two miles, or
cycling 10 miles, five days a week.
Learn a new dance (or
language or musical
As we get older, and particularly as we
enter middle age, we are no longer taxing
our brains as much as we did when we
were at school. Most of middle age is the
replaying of already-mastered skills, such
as reading the paper and repeating
familiar tasks at work.
To maintain an ageing brain requires
novelty and taxing exercise: doing
something as difficult as learning a new
language or a new dance, or how to play a
new musical instrument. These activities
engage a part of the brain called the
nucleus basalis, which is responsible for
helping us to pay attention and to
consolidate new connections in the brain
when we learn. Ideally, practise daily for
an hour or so, with high-quality, focused
concentration throughout.
Do serious brain exercises
As we get older, our brains become more
“noisy”. They are not as good at registering
new information with clear, strong signals,
and it becomes harder to retain
information that was registered in a
“muddy” way.
Serious brain exercises, such as those that
grew out of the work of neuroplasticity
pioneer Michael Merzenich, are designed
to train specific brain areas for processing
sounds and images. A National Institutes of
Health study showed that their effects
lasted 10 years, and that participants got
better not just at the exercises, but at using
their brains in life, too.
These exercises are very different from
most computer brain games or those in
newspapers; they are very challenging and
require intense concentration. One
example involves listening to consonant-
vowel combinations that are easily
confused, played at an increasingly rapid
speed. It helps to sharpen the brain’s
auditory processors, to record sharper,
clearer signals of those sounds – so when
you hear a name at a party it is recorded
crisply, and is easy to retrieve from
memory. The brain exercises used in the
NIH study are now called “Brain HQ”.
Pay close to attention to
your voice
You may have noticed that sometimes you
can get charged up just listening to the
sound of someone delivering a lecture,
whereas someone else might be a very
thoughtful teacher but have a voice that
drones on and drains your energy and puts
you to sleep.
What differentiates voices that charge us
up from those that “discharge” us is the
vocal frequencies, and the ability of the
person speaking to hear the subtle
differences in their own voice. The person
who has the rich voice has it because their
ability to listen is superior, not because of
their vocal chords.
If you listen very carefully to what you are
saying as you speak – to the sound of it, not
just the content – you will refine it, and
energise it, into a voice that charges, as
opposed to one that drains yourself and
Get the rest your body
A recent study at the US University of
Rochester showed that, during sleep, brain
cells called glia open up special channels
that allow waste products and toxic
buildup in the brain – including the same
proteins that build up in dementia – to be
eliminated. On top of this, while we sleep,
newly formed connections — between
neurons that are created by the learning
that we did the day before — become
consolidated and made more durable.
Modern westerners have been
progressively losing sleep because of
inventions that estrange us from our true
natures. The electric lightbulb and, of
course, 24/7 internet, mean we are often so
alert that we are not listening to our body’s
signals when it is time for sleep. In the
19th century, the average western adult
thought it was normal to get about nine
hours of sleep. In North America, it is now
closer to seven hours – and
dropping.Recommendations vary, but some
researchers say 8.5 hours is a better
average to aim for.