Have you ever thought about how powerful your brain is? It can make sense of words and numbers and help you move your body, even when you’re scared or nervous. Not only is the brain powerful, but it’s also extremely fast.
Have you ever wondered why you can interpret what you read as soon as you see it? Or how fast you can spot your friend in a crowd? It’s all thanks to your brain and the millions of neurons it contains; it’s amazing just how much information you can store in such a small amount of space.
So, how exactly can we exercise our brains and train them to do better? In this book, you will learn how the brain works and what you can do to make sure that it’s always in its best condition.
Your brain is a fascinating thing, and you should definitely get to know more about it because it sure knows a lot about you!
Rule #1: Exercise Boosts Brain Power
Way back when, our ancestors were nomads, meaning that they had no permanent home and moved from place to place. They were forced to move because staying in one place for too long wasn’t ideal since resources ran out, predators visited them often, and the weather was in continual change. Moving in this way helped their brains develop rapidly.
But what about now? We have very different lifestyles compared to those of our ancestors. Today, we can go for hours without moving from our seats, and how much we move is one of the factors that can determine whether we’ll age healthily or not.
If you live a sedentary lifestyle, meaning you spend the majority of your day not moving very much or lying on the couch, you’ll most likely be an elderly person who withers as time passes you by. However, if you live an active lifestyle, you can continue to be quick and agile even when you’re 75 years old and beyond!
Exercise has lots of advantages: it can reduce your likelihood of developing diseases such as heart attacks and strokes and help you to be in top shape, physically and mentally. Studies have shown that people who are active outperform people with sedentary lifestyles in tests for memory, logic, problem-solving, and reasoning.
Exercise can also lessen the risk of developing diseases later in life. It can also regulate your mood since physical activity releases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in your nervous system. It’s been proven that people with sedentary lifestyles still have hope for improvement when it comes to aging successfully.
Researcher shows improvement when it comes to the mental abilities of inactive people after enrolling them in exercises programs. At just four months after beginning the exercise programs, they show significant progress.
Jack La Lanne is a good example of how exercise boosts brain power. He was 70 years old when he successfully managed to pull 70 boats—each carrying one person—from California’s Long Beach Harbor to Queen’s Way Bridge. Jack swam for 1.5 miles while tied to 70 boats behind him. Aside from his strong body—even at his age—Jack is mentally alert. His mind and body were that of a 20-year-old!
Let’s use two men, named Jim and Frank, as examples of people who lived two different lifestyles. Jim, who lived a sedentary lifestyle, is in a home for the elderly, and he barely moves throughout the day. He sits in front of the TV, looks miserable, and often bursts into tears without reason. Frank, on the other hand, lived an active life and is strong and alert. He is always on the move and is an architect who finished building a museum at 90 years old and is full of zest for life.
Even though there are other factors that come into play, you can see the advantages of being active. There is always hope for anyone to improve their lifestyle since just 20 minutes of exercise per day will bring positive changes to your health and your mood.
Rule #2: The Human Brain Evolved, Too
Our ancestors didn’t just use their bodies to survive such harsh environments; they also used their brains. What separates us from animals is our capacity for symbolic reasoning. It is the ability to picture in our mind’s those things that are not really there. Imagine drawing a vertical line on the palm of your hand. Because we have symbolic reasoning, we can interpret this line as the letter “I” or as the number one.
Symbolic reasoning helped our ancestors in speaking and warning each other of any danger ahead. Thanks to years of human evolution, we created universal symbols that don’t need to be explained, like the red stop sign for stop and the “thumbs up” signal for okay.
We also apply symbolic reasoning to every field, like languages, the arts, or poetry, and our culture is molded from this unique ability – think of our myths, legends, and sacred texts. Humans can build religions and corporations because of symbolic reasoning, while animals cannot. Right?
Natural selection has weeded out our weak ancestors, and the strongest ones passed their genes on to future generations. Yet, history has overlooked this. Have you ever wondered how humankind grew to over 7 billion people when our ancestors began as a small group in East Africa?
The answer is change. Instead of fighting change, we adapted to it. Richard Potts, director of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Museum, calls this theory the Variability Selection Theory. This theory states that our brain has two powerful features: first, we have the ability to recall our past mistakes, and second, our brain allows us to reflect on and learn from them. These abilities helped our ancestors to weather rapidly-changing conditions without any outside help. They survived predators, harsh climates, and scarce resources – even without instruction manuals or YouTube tutorial videos!
Something else that distinguishes us from other animals is bipedalism, which refers to our ability to walk on two legs and use our hands for other functions. However, the factor that truly distinguishes humans from other species is the presence of the prefrontal cortex in our brains. The prefrontal cortex is the part that is mainly responsible for our capacity for problem-solving, focus, and control over our basic instincts.
The following story can illustrate the importance of the prefrontal cortex. It’s that of a 25-year-old man named Phineas Gage, who was a foreman who worked as part of a railroad construction crew. His co-workers and family described him as being funny, smart, and hardworking. One day at work, Gage had a terrible accident. He was setting up explosives in a dam to clear out the rocks found there when the explosives went off too soon. Because of the unexpected blast, a 3-foot steel rod went straight through Gage’s skull and landed a few feet behind him, destroying his prefrontal cortex.
Miraculously, Gage survived. However, he became a different person and was described as becoming irritable, rude, and impulsive. He died from epileptic seizures several years after. This illustrates the importance of the brain and the prefrontal cortex in our overall health and its impact on who we fundamentally are.
Rule #3: We Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things
You need sustained attention to learn things; the more you pay attention to something, the more you’ll remember it. For example, the more you’re interested in what your English teacher is saying, the more you’ll know and remember about the English language. Now, the ultimate question in every workplace and classroom is: how do you hold someone’s attention?
There are often many distractions surrounding you. In this very moment, while you’re reading this, your dog might be barking, and you may hear the sound of cars passing by, but the stimulus that holds your attention is the sentence that you’re reading right now. This information will become connected to your memory, interest, and awareness.
Memories also influence where we pay our attention. Jared Diamond, the author of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, shared the experience of his trip to the New Guinea jungle and his interactions with native New Guineans. The natives were good at noticing changes in the environment, following a trail, and finding their way back home. Jared, who lived in the city, could not do any of these things since he wasn’t used to doing them in his daily life.
This is an example of how we pay attention to things that are considered important in the culture and environment that we grew up with. Imagine a New Guinean baby growing up in New York; do you think he or she would have the survival skills that his ancestors did?
Interest also has something to do with attention. Marketing professionals take advantage of this principle when they use something new, unpredictable, or distinguishable when it comes to their advertisements.
For example, in the print ad for Sauza tequila, marketers used a picture of an old, unkempt, bearded man with a huge grin on his face, rather than featuring younger people partying and drinking the tequila. The old man had a single tooth, while the text on the top read: “This man only has one cavity”, followed by: “Life is harsh. Your tequila shouldn’t be”. This print ad surely caught the eyes of consumers since the image is striking and differs from what one would expect.
Awareness also influences our attention. A fascinating example of this can be found in the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist, and author. Dr. Sacks had an elderly woman who had suffered a massive stroke as a patient. The back region, the woman’s brain was severely damaged because of the stroke, and as a result, she could not see or feel anything on the left side of her body. Since she was no longer aware of anything on her left, she could not pay it any attention.
For instance, when the woman applied makeup, she would only apply it to the right side of her face, and when she ate, she would only finish the right half of her plate. The woman had complained to the nurses that they never gave her dessert, but the nurses explained to her that if she would just turn her gaze to the left, she would see the dessert since it was there all along, even though she didn’t see it because she was not aware of it.
Rule #4: Repeat to Remember
Your memory plays a role in your survival. If your brain didn’t keep track of your allergies, you’d be eating foods that you are allergic to and experiencing the negative consequences. Experiences shape your brain and helps you live longer, but how exactly do our memories work?
Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German researcher, tried to answer this question by conducting an experiment on himself. He came up with 2,300 three-lettered, nonsensical words like ZUG, REN, TAZ, and spent his life trying to memorize them.
Ebbinghaus realized that different memories have different lifespans; some memories were retained for only a few minutes, while others remained for a lifetime. He discovered that in order for a word to be remembered for a longer period of time, he had to repeat the word every once in a while. The more repetitions he made, the more the memory was solidified. Ebbinghaus’s work led to more studies on this subject matter.
You can apply this principle to your studies. If you need to memorize lots of facts, you can do so successfully by recalling them every day. On the other hand, if you cram right before an exam, meaning that you study lots of information and try to remember it in a short amount of time, it will be more difficult for you to succeed. Ebbinghaus concluded that spaced learning is more effective than massed learning, meaning that it’s better to take intermittent breaks and have regular study sessions than trying to memorize everything at once and in a short period of time.
Test yourself: what is your Social Security Number? Do you know how to ride a bike?
When you try to remember your Social Security Number, you visualize the last time you saw your Social Security card or the last time you wrote the numbers down, whereas when you ride a bike again after several years, you do not need to remember each step: holding the handle-bars, sitting on the bike seat, and applying pressure to the pedals – you just do everything at once, without conscious effort.
We are talking about these two types of memories based on the presence and absence of awareness. Declarative memories are those that you can declare, such as: “I’m wearing a black shirt” and “we live on planet Earth”, and these kinds of memories require conscious awareness.
Meanwhile, non-declarative memories are those that you automatically hold in your mind in order to perform tasks such as tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, or riding a bike, just to name a few. This is because motor skills are not considered to be part of our conscious awareness.
Every morning, you perform your routine without effort. You do not need to figure out how to brush your teeth or how to tie your sneakers, and even if you have not ridden a bike or played the guitar for several years, your muscles can remember how to do those things.
The following is an interesting story about short-term memory. H.M. was nine years old when he fell off his bicycle. As a result, he suffered a head injury and experienced frequent epileptic seizures. His condition worsened as he got older, reaching a point where H.M. would black out every week or so.
In his late 20s, he was no longer able to function – even in his own home. His family brought him to a well-known neurosurgeon named William Scoville. Scoville determined that the problem was with H.M.’s temporal lobe, which is the region of the brain above both of the ears.
To help H.M., Scoville removed the left and right temporal lobes of his brain and as the doctor had predicted, the epileptic seizures lessened. However, H.M.’s ability to convert short-term memory to long-term memory was lost along with the seizures, since he could not remember anything in the long run, leading him to a point where he could no longer recognize himself in the mirror.
H.M. did not know how old he was, and could not learn a new name, song, word, or face, as he would forget it almost instantly.
Because of his condition, H.M. has been a research subject for many years. He was cheerful and friendly to all the scientists and never grew weary of all the tests because, for him, each experience was new. H.M. died at age 82 due to respiratory problems.
Rule #5: Remember to Repeat
Short-term memory isn’t as short-lived as is its name suggests; a more accurate term for short-term memory could be working memory. According to scientist Alan Baddeley, it is a complex mechanism comprised of three components. The first component is auditory, the second is visual, and the third is executive.
The auditory component is responsible for the words we hear, while the visual component is responsible for the images we see and form in our minds. The central executive component tracks everything in the short-term memory, as could be illustrated with the following example.
Miguel Najdorf was a world-renowned chess player, and while he was in Argentina attending a competition, Germany invaded Poland. Miguel’s family was taken to a concentration camp. In an attempt to attract publicity and hopefully have a member of his family reach out to him as a result, Miguel played 45 games of chess in 11 hours. Him doing this was fascinating in and of itself, but what made it more interesting was the fact that Miguel played all of these games while blindfolded. Take note of the fact that the pieces on a chess board are arranged in exactly the same way at the beginning of every new match.
Miguel used the auditory component by asking the opponents what moves they had just made when it was his turn to play. He then used the visual component to imagine how the chess pieces changed position as the game progressed. Lastly, Miguel used the central executive component to separate one game from another. When a game was over, he reset the image in his mind to the original arrangement of the chess pieces. This is how he won chess games, even while blindfolded.
As Ebbinghaus said, if you don’t repeat exposure to information occasionally, and connect it with other useful information, you’re more likely to forget it. This process is called consolidation, and is how we commit a short-term memory to long-term memory.
In simple terms, consolidation means to repeat and connect. If you want to truly remember something, you need to perform the same process repeatedly. Repeat and connect. Repeat and connect. Repeat and connect.
You may be surprised to discover that your childhood memories are not as accurate as you think they are. The details of an event fade away in your memory as time goes by and as a consequence, the brain makes up for it by adding new information to the story.
The brain takes in all of the information that you perceive from the world around you, and that’s why it associates your old memories to new memories. This makes it easier for the brain to make sense of everything.
Let’s imagine that you have a memory of a beautiful day spent at the beach with your parents when you were 8 years old. You would recall the details accurately two years later, at 10 years old. You may have written everything in your diary.
However, if you were to see this diary again thirty years later, your memory of that event would not be as clear as what it was when you were younger. This is because your more recent experiences influenced the details of that memory.
Rule #6: Sleep Well, Think Well
No, it’s not you being overly dramatic about the changes you feel when you are lacking sleep. Studies have proven time and time again that sleep deprivation can cause damage to your body and mind. Going without sleep isn’t something we can sustain because our bodies are hardwired to go through cycles of wakefulness and sleep automatically.
Being awake and being asleep have been described as an ongoing war inside your body. The battle is between Process C, and Process S. “Process C” is composed of hormones and other chemicals that do everything to keep you awake. On the converse, “Process S” is made up of hormones and chemicals designed to put you to sleep.
However, this ongoing war is ironic since the side in which the chemicals dominate is more likely to lose. Why? This is because the longer you’re awake, the greater the possibility that sleep will overtake you because the body is already exhausted.
Afternoon naps are considered healthy by researchers, rather than a sign of laziness or oversleeping. Our bodies need a chance to rest, even if just for a few minutes. One study made by NASA showed that a pilot’s performance improved by more than 34% per cent after taking a 26-minute nap, while another study showed that a boost in mental processing was observed in students who took a 45-minute nap.
To illustrate the importance of sleep, consider that in 1965, 17-year-old Randy Garner decided that for his science fair project, he wouldn’t sleep for 11 days straight. Not only did he achieve this feat, but he also set a record for that year for the longest time that someone went without any sleep. However, during Randy’s experiment, he became irritable, forgetful, and terribly exhausted. He also showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease such as disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia. Randy’s body malfunctioned like a broken machine. During the last day of his experiment, his fingers trembled, and he couldn’t speak properly.
Having enough hours of sleep is not only important for children; it is a natural mechanism made for the body to recharge and recover from all the activities it performs. When you need to study for an exam or work on a major project, it is important to give yourself adequate time to rest. Taking a nap should not be considered something lazy, but rather as something that will make you more productive.
You learned about 6 brain rules that can change your life.
Brain rule #1 says that exercise cannot only help you physically, but mentally as well. Exercise will help you in ageing gracefully.
Brain rule #2 made you realize that your brain evolved as it adapted to the ever-changing environment and helped you survive.
Brain rule #3 emphasized the influence of memory, interest, and awareness in your attention span. We pay attention to what is important to our culture, to what is extraordinary, and to what is perceived by our consciousness.
Brain rule #4 made you aware that spaced learning is far more effective than massed learning. You need to take breaks and repeat the information so that you’ll remember it.
Brain rule #5 taught you about consolidation. Repeating and connecting causes a short-term memory to become a long-term memory.
Brain rule #6 reminded you that sleep is important. It helps you become smarter and healthier.
The brain is like a muscle. It needs exercise, but it also needs rest. Hopefully, through these brain rules, you can increase the capacity of your mind. The brain might be the greatest machine that ever existed, so do your best to take good care of it and unlock its great potential.