WHEN MOST PEOPLE consider the concept of brain training to improve learning,
they tend to think of those online game programs or puzzles that are purported
to give the brain a "workout" by practicing memory and problem
solving skills to sharpen the mind. Others consider more advanced techniques aimed at
optimizing brainwave activity through neurofeedback or stimulation therapies. Although the games can
be fun, there's little research to support their true efficacy in
training the brain for improved success in learning. And the advanced
technologies can prove costly. I'm definitely following the medical
literature on the use of computer, smartpone and other technologies to
train the brain, even contributing to the general fund of knowledge on
this topic through research. But the reality is that you really don't
need an Internet subscription or expensive subscriptions and programs to help
you or your child train the brain for better classroom success and improved
learning. In fact, nailing just four habits can help significantly improve
performance over time.
1. Sleep. Americans, with our smartphones never out of reach and constant attempts
at multi-tasking, are getting less and less of the quality and
quantity of sleep we need to simply function – let alone get better at anything. Here's
the deal: Sleep is as essential to overall health and brain performance
as food and water. Without enough of it, your brain cannot form or maintain
the pathways that allow learning to happen. A lack of quality sleep also
makes it harder to respond quickly to or concentrate on anything,and some
research suggests it can even cut learning ability by nearly 40 percent.
Contrary to popular belief, sleep does not shut your brain down for the
eight or so hours you're snoozing. Recently published research reveals
that the physiologic mechanisms that occur during sleep actually act as
a cleaning crew would to help remove toxins in the brain that accumulated
while you were awake. Sleep is the ultimate cobweb sweeper. Getting enough
sleep each night (seven to eight hours for most adults) helps strengthen
memories and build connections in the brain allowing storage of different
pieces of information.
2. Exercise. Beyond the benefits of physical health and appearance, exercise is essential
in the protection of
memory and thinking skills. Think of it as a bodyguard for your brain function. As it turns out,
recent research suggests that aerobic exercise – the heart-pumping,
sweat-inducing kind – increases hippocampus size, which is the area
of the brain involved in learning and verbal memory skills. From a chemical
perspective, exercise stimulates the release of natural growth factors
in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, new blood vessel growth
in the brain and the increase and survival of new brain cells. And those
are just the direct benefits. Indirectly, exercise is credited by many
research scientists with improvement in overall mood and sleep quality,
plus reduction in stress and anxiety. If you're new to an exercise
routine, make sure to talk to your doctor before you begin, then you can
simply start with 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking most days a week.
Gradually increase duration and/or intensity as tolerated (and approved
by your physician). Your brain will be better for it.
3. Mindfulness meditation. Now, before you write this off as nonsense, a considerable amount of recent
neurological research has turned up evidence that
mindfulness meditation can help improve focus and enhance attention (essential for doing well
in school) as well as quiet the autonomic nervous system (the part of
the nervous system responsible for bodily functions you don't consciously
direct – like breathing, heartbeat and digestion). So what is mindfulness,
exactly? It's the ability to hold your attention to something. The
goal is to be continuously attuned to the present moment. Building mindfulness
abilities in conjunction with awareness (a kind of "sheriff"
of your thoughts reminding you of when you're successful vs. when
you've drifted into thoughts about e-mail, tomorrow's tasks or
yesterday's worries) is a powerful way of training the brain. Techniques
can involve relaxation, practiced breathing and mental imagery. Over the
last 20 years, neurological research suggests that mindfulness meditation
is beneficial to physical, mental and cognitive health. How to get started?
There are a variety of ways, but simply spending a few quiet minutes each
day looking inward and focusing on mindfulness can offer tremendous benefits.
There are free online sites and smartphone apps that can help start a
meditation program with guided meditations. Search "mindfulness meditation"
to find a variety of ways to go about it. At least one will likely suit you.
4. Regulate dietary intake. You could've guessed this one, right? That old adage "you are
what you eat" is true.
Food is fuel for your body and your brain. And as you likely know, not every food you
put in is treated equally or used efficiently by your body. Especially
in developing children, without proper nutrition, the ability of the brain
to learn new skills or tasks decreases. And with older adults, science
tells us that diets too heavily loaded with processed foods can actually
contribute to mental decline,
depression and memory loss over time. Most people can look at their diet and identify
at least a few areas that are in need of improvement. Do you rely to heavily
on convenience or fast foods for your daily caloric intake? Take the time
to retool your diet with whole, nutritionally dense foods. What does whole
foods actually mean? The less processed, the better. If it comes in a
box, it's not the best thing for you or your brain. Stick with lean
protein sources and significant amounts of vegetables and fruits for the
best brain bang for your buck.