Ways to Improve your Neuroplasticity and Maximize Your Cognitive Potential
Our brains are truly incredible organs with seemingly endless capabilities and, according to researchers, remain plastic for the entire durations of our lives. Neural plasticity is the concept that refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells. It is a process that takes place in the brain all throughout our lifespans and helps us learn new things for as long as we live. However, the expression “use it or lose it” also definitely applies to the brain. Just as our bodies need regular physical exercises to stay in shape, our brains need to stay active in order to function smoothly and effectively.
What are some ways to keep your brain sharp?
1. Learn a new language
According to scientific research, learning new languages is important for preventing brain disorders associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Learning languages equates to brain workouts, and helps to reorganize and consolidate important neural networks, such as the ones used for “executive control functions,” including reasoning and planning. Since these are the brain regions that are first to suffer loss of function during the onset of disease processes related to aging, learning languages is an effective way to age-proof your brain.
2. Try new things
Exposing your brain to novelty is one of the best ways to keep your brain active and healthy. According to scientific research, new experiences trigger the release of the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) dopamine in the brain. This chemical makes us feel good and plays an important role in helping us feel motivated. Interestingly, the same study also revealed that exposure to novelty helps us in learning and information processing.
3. Read as much as possible
Reading can be an excellent workout for your brain. Reading books, magazines and news articles helps to exercise the regions of the brain responsible for language processing. Recently, neuroscientists have revealed that reading a novel can do wonders for your brain. Specifically, the scientists used brain imaging techniques to show that that reading a novel improves brain function simultaneously on many levels. The researchers found that reading a novel increased readers’ brain connectivity, and improved their ability to take on the perspective of a different person. Reading is also a great way to stay sharp throughout life and to prevent aging-related memory loss.
4. Stay curious
Learning is a very important process for the brain that not only “updates” existing neural networks, but also creates new ones. A study by researchers at University of California has shown that curiosity helps to prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory storage. Therefore, piquing your own curiosity not only makes things more interesting, but can also help you learn and better retain information.
5. Get enough sleep
Research studies show us that sleep deprivation negatively impacts our attention span and memory. Lack of sleep not only negatively affects our memory recall, but also prevents memory consolidation — our ability to make new memories. During sleep, the waste and metabolic products are eliminated from the brain and brain connections are remodelled and modified.
6. Exercise regularly
Getting enough exercise is very important for maintaining cognitive function. Studies have demonstrated that exercise increases the production of new brain cells in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory. In addition to making our bodies healthier, regular aerobic exercise also boosts our memory function and thinking skills.
Brain atrophy is the phenomenon of losing brain cells as we get old, and is considered a normal part of the aging process. Unfortunately, these structural losses also translate into functional impairments and cognitive decline. However, a new research study discovered that brains of long-term meditators had significantly more grey matter volume (i.e. more brain cells) than the brains of non-meditators.
8. Stay hydrated
Adequate hydration is necessary for optimal brain functioning. According to new research, even slight dehydration can decrease cognitive function. Being dehydrated just for two hours impairs cognitive performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor and immediate memory skills, as well as accurate assessment of the physical state.
9. Manage your stress levels
Chronic stress can have detrimental consequences for brain health and function, and new research shows that stress can decrease brain structure and connectivity, leading to brain shrinkage and memory loss. High levels of stress are also correlated with increased dementia risk.
10. Maintain a social life
Maintaining rich and meaningful relationships and social interaction is a key ingredient to keeping your brain healthy throughout your lifespan. Nurturing social ties and having frequent social interactions is strongly associated with better memory and slower brain aging.
Is it possible to improve our cognitive function?
Cognitive function refers to to an individual's ability to process information. This term can be loosely defined as the capacity of an individual to perform the various mental activities, especially those associated with learning and problem solving. Astonishingly, with some training, we can keep improving our brains’ cognitive abilities throughout our lifetime. Specifically, big improvements can be made when working on your memory and attention span.
What are some ways to improve your memory?
- Avoid distractions
Distractions are an unavoidable part of life, but they seriously interfere with memory consolidation. Research studies have revealed that distractions, both visual and auditory, significantly impair our memory and cognitive performance. Moreover, they interfere with learning processes.
- Use associations
Our brain is better at remembering things if we have created associations between them, and this is also the working principle behind mnemonic devices. One excellent way to help you remember some tricky facts or pieces of information is by associating them with a visual stimulus, making it easier for the brain to remember. The reason for this is that it is easier for the brain to retain concrete, visual information, rather than abstract information such as numbers and facts.
- Learn in “chunks”
Cognitive scientists have long ago discovered that we are more likely to remember information we learn in “chunks.” This means that it is easier to learn information that is grouped together according to its meaning. In fact, it is easier to learn information frequently and in smaller “bundles” rather than infrequently and in large volumes, which explains why it is so difficult to do well on an exam we had desperately crammed for the night before.
- Play memory games
Challenging your brain with memory games, new information and logic problems helps to train your memory and help you stay sharp. You can take advantage of the many online games designed to exercise your memory, or play Sudoku and solve puzzles on your daily commute to work. A study by researchers at UCLA has shown that just 20 minutes of brain exercises every four days can improve memory recall and help you remember things longer, especially in older adults.
What are some ways to improve your attention span?
1. Minimize interruptions
Constantly receiving notifications in the form of emails, text messages and social media notifications is detrimental to our attention spans. According to a recent British study, we switch between our devices on average 21 times an hour. In addition, research shows that even small distraction that lasts a few seconds can disrupt your work flow and significantly increase your chances of making an error. Therefore, in times when you need to focus on a project, make sure you limit your distractions.
2. Take breaks
According to studies in the domain of cognitive science, most of us work in bursts of 25-50 minutes. Finding out which rhythm works for you and using it helps you stay focused. Although there is no single consensus by scientific studies on how long to keep working before taking breaks, most studies agree on one thing: taking breaks in between helps us focus on the task at hand and maximize our attention.
3. Optimize your background sounds
If you are someone who needs silence to work, then make sure you do your work in a quiet space or a library to maximize your attention capacities. However, music we like increases our concentration and can be beneficial to prolong our attention span. Specifically, music that includes the sounds of nature has been found to enhance our focus.
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the process of focusing on what you are doing, your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Practicing mindfulness for short periods of 10-20 minutes a day while you are eating or taking a walk can go a long way in improving your attention span.
Together, these tips can produce effective results, leading to positive changes in your brain's structure and function, and keeping it healthy through all stages of life. You have lots of options, as there are many effective ways to improve cognitive performance and fluid intelligence. However, it is also important to remember that these tips work best when used together, and should be applied in concert for maximum benefit.