Our brains are responsible for our performance in many areas of our life. Imagine being able to boost your brain power significantly – you’d get more work done in a day, you’d be able to read more books and become a wealth of knowledge, you’d be able to progress in your career, you could understand more complex subjects, impress the opposite sex and employers – maybe even do something that could have a big impact on the world. If you’ve seen the film ‘Limitless’ or read ‘The Dark Fields’ then you’ll have an idea of what enhanced brain power could do for you (and if you haven’t then you should!).
The great news is that you actually can boost your brain power – and while you might not become Einstein over night, you certainly can improve your brain power significantly. Here we will look at a few ways in which you can get smarter fast and a few theoretical ways in which we might one day be able to boost our cognitive powers even further.
Note: ‘Brain power’ essentially refers to the ‘processing power’ of the brain. There are several different types of intelligence and one distinction made is between ‘fluid’ intelligence and ‘crystallized’ intelligence. Essentially this boils down to intelligence that you can use to solve unique problems and perform maths, versus knowledge that you have simply learned. To boost crystallized intelligence all you need to do is to go on some kind of course and to study hard, or to read lots of books. No doubt this will give you an impressive knowledge that can get you far in life, but it’s not the same as fluid intelligence which is raw cognitive agility. That’s what we’re looking at here.
Brain training is currently very popular and there are a few different methods of brain training that are currently gaining big followings. One recent smash hit was the brain training game on the Nintendo DS which has many people tapping away and hoping to increase their IQ as a result. Another is ‘Lumocity’ which is a website that offers similar brain training activities and some social networking features. There are also a tonne of free apps that offer the same kind of thing on the Android and iPhone markets.
These brain training games are worked, or so it is believed, but they have not actually been proven to be any more effective than other forms of training like mental arithmetic. So in other words you don’t need to spend a whole lot of money on fancy applications or hardware – you can just engage in any cognitive task. In fact it may surprise you to learn that taxi drivers are the workers who have the largest brains of any profession. The reason for this is simply that they are forced to memorize countless routes around a city and that requires an extensive use of their long term memory, sense of direction and mental map.
This is actually thanks to something called ‘brain plasticity’. Relatively recently discovered by scientists, brain plasticity is essentially the term for when your brain changes shape in response to the way it’s used. So in other words if you use a certain part of it a lot, that part will grow. In one study psychologists looked at the brains of cellists for instance, and found that the areas of their brain responsible for sensation on their fingertips were enlarged compared to the rest. You can work out your brain then in much the same way that you can work out your muscles you just need to be consistent and patient.
When you want to train your brain then, think first about the kinds of abilities you want to improve. How you go about training memory for instance is going to be very different to how you train abstract thinking. Then just choose an activity that trains this part of your brain. A great example for instance is chess – which will train your ability to think several moves ahead and to pay attention to the bored. One incredible brain training activity though is learning a new language which teaches your brain to think in a whole new way. The way you use your brain now is also affecting its shape and abilities – it’s believed for instance that the internet is shortening all of our attention spans and our ability to take in large amounts of information in long sequences. So think hard about how you use your brain and whether it’s likely to be having the effect you want it to.
Change Your Thinking
You can also improve your cognitive function through changing your mental habits. This is actually another reason that learning a new language is such a fantastic way to improve brain function – because it allows you to think outside the confines of your language. It may surprise you to learn that in countries where there are no words for certain colors – those people cannot distinguish those shades. In other words our thinking is a prisoner to how we think. Likewise the Japanese are believed to be better at mental arithmetic for one major reason – because the sounds they use for numbers are shorter and easier than ours. So it takes them less time to sound out in their mind, and it’s easier to remember.
The good news then is that you can change the frameworks and the habits you use to think and you can learn new techniques and tools to become more adept at remembering things, recalling them etc. For example learning how to do long division will teach you to be quicker with certain arithmetic. Likewise you can learn good little mental habits – such as multiplying smaller numbers and adding them together to make multiplication easier. For memory there are lots of different methods too such as ‘chunking’ and there are plenty of informative guides out there on how to improve memory power and other abilities (a great one is the Derren Brown book ‘Trick of the Mind’). Speed reading is another skill that can be developed and many of these same ideas could be used to help you think and learn faster too.
Your diet is very important for your mental performance. They say you are what you eat, and that means body and mind. Your brain is literally made from the things that your body extracts from your diet, and so if you give it better fuels and building blocks that’s what will end up in the brain. For instance eating amino acids will help to give your brain the building blocks it needs to make the gray matter itself as well as the neurotransmitters that allow the neurons to communicate. Meanwhile giving the brain carbs will give it the energy it needs to function, and giving it essential fatty acids and B12 is essential to prevent the brain from decaying away.
If you can’t get these substances in your diet, or want to get more of them, then you can supplement your regular diet with ‘nootropics’. These are tablets and supplements designed specifically to enhance cognitive function – either in the short term or long term. Caffeine can be considered a short term nootropic as it increases memory and focus. Interestingly even nicotine has been shown to improve recall, though it is addictive so not advisable to be used in this capacity. A nootropic may not even affect the brain directly but rather enhance cognitive performance through side effect. For instance if you use NO2 (nitric oxide) this increases vasodilation – dilating the veins in order to let more blood and nutrients get to the brain.
Exercising has been shown to help improve brain function. This can be accredited to many different processes. For instance exercising helps you to produce several positive hormones and brain chemicals such as endorphins (happiness hormones), dopamine, adrenaline and growth hormone. It also helps to get blood flowing around the body and to the brain. Then there’s the fact that exercise actually involves the brain – for spacial awareness and for motor control. Exercising the body in unusual ways can stimulate growth around the brain – for instance training in ambidexterity has been shown to be useful for increasing performance on cognitive tasks.
In studies exercise (particularly cardiovascular) has been shown to increase memory and recall. Furthermore, exercise has been linked to neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells which was thought to be impossible beyond a certain age until recent research demonstrated otherwise.
Nootropics and brain enhancement are hot topics and in the future we can expect to see a lot more developed over time. This falls under an area of debate called ‘transhumanism’ which is the discussion of technologies used to take us past our usual mental and physical limits. In other words the pursuit of super-human abilities through science.
This could be achieved by surgery. Examinations of Einstein’s brain for instance have revealed that he had several differences compared to the majority of brains including a severed ‘corpus callosum’ which is the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres. Without a corpus callosum it is thought that the two brain halves would have worked independently effectively giving Einstein the ability to think with two different brains at once. Of course much more study is needed before psychologists are going to start slicing patient’s brains in half.
More promising though is the use of transcranial stimulation in order to achieve improved cognitive powers. As you are probably aware, the neurons in the brain work by sending and receiving electrical signals, just like a computer circuit. In deep brain stimulation studies, scientists have tested the effects of using an electrode to artificially stimulate these neurons which has resulted in a range of different effects. By stimulating one area of the brain for instance it is possible to cause a patient’s memories – thought long forgotten – to come flooding back in highly vivid detail. By stimulating other parts it’s possible to increase focus, and even to alter mood which has been used to treat depression. Likewise by using magnetism it is possible to suppress certain areas of the brain which can sometimes trigger more advanced function in the counterparts. One particularly interesting demonstration involved suppressing the language centers of the brain which has been shown to drastically increase mathematical ability and focus. This then is a kind of forced autism savantism but with the ability to ‘turn it off’. So you can become autistic for half an hour while you work on your maths paper only to then switch it off again.
This deep brain stimulation however requires direct access to the brain. These studies were carried out on patients of brain surgery while their brain was exposed. Obviously you are not going to want to cut the top of your head off in order to stimulate the brain. Fortunately this is where ‘transcranial stimulation’ comes in – which is stimulation through the scalp. This very method has already been used successfully to treat depression and to create ‘mind controls’ for computer games – so it is only a matter of time before this is used to increase brain function.
Finally certain genes have been identified which seem to be related to various cognitive skills. This is something that is normally luck of the draw and while you can train to improve your maths or English you are always going to be learning from a starting point ordained by nature. However scientists are now discovering how the genetic code can be altered in living creatures and this opens up a whole realm of transhuman applications. This works via an injection directly into the cell’s nucleus (which contains the genetic code) with the new desired piece of code. When the cell splits and divides this new code too is divided and the mutation gradually begins to take hold this way. The reason this method is not used yet today unfortunately is that it is impossible to know precisely which part of the genetic code the new code is going to land on. 75% of our code is blank called ‘junk DNA’ so chances are this won’t be an issue – however if a crucial piece of DNA is ‘overwritten’ then this will cause a range of untold problems.