Boost your brain power

If you can’t remember where you left your keys or the name of a new colleague at work, it’s probably not stupidity or dementia. More likely, your brain is caught in ruts and information overload. You’re asked to keep up with an incredible amount of information, and that taxes the brain. For instance, information workers are bombarded with about 1.6 gigabytes of information per day from emails, reports, blogs, text messages, cell calls and more, according to a report from UC San Diego.

Add to that the learning curves (learning cliff) for new remotes, Blackberries, camera, and retail credit card processing. And names? Give yourself a break. Story is that human brains are configured to live in a village of about 200 people. In this modern village, your brain has to remember the name of your seventh grade teacher, Little League parent, co-worker from three jobs ago, Jimmy Carter’s wife, celebrities from The Office, the yellow flower that blooms late summer, the movie about surfing, plus all Toyota’s cars.

Despite all that, you can help your brain learn and remember. There are billions of ways to stimulate your brain’s 100 billion neurons. Create new connections—big or small—and your brain becomes more active and stays flexible. Even the brains of older people can grow new neurons. You can reduce toxins, focus on your physical sensations, eat fish oil, meditate, whiff some cinnamon. Or try these five ways to create new neural pathways and to help your brain stay plastic:

1. Laugh
Laughter is good for your brain! Humor works in the whole brain, and quickly. Less than a half-second after you hear or see something funny, an electrical wave moves through the higher brain functions of the cerebral cortex: the left hemisphere analyzes the joke’s words and structure; the right hemisphere interprets the meaning. Meanwhile, the visual sensory area of the occipital lobe creates images; the limbic (emotional system) makes you happier; and the motor sections make you smile or laugh. In short, laughter improves alertness, creativity, and memory.

Gelotologists (people who explore the benefits of laughter) find that laughter lowers blood pressure, increases vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood, provides a workout to the diaphragm and various other muscles, reduces certain stress hormones, increases disease and tumor-killing cells, and defends against respiratory infections. Help your brain by smiling, reading a few comics, or faking a chuckle or two. It’s infectious.

2. Exercise
Movement helps you think. The brain’s cognitive and movement functions work side by side, sharing the same automatic process. When you solve a problem, you imagine moving through the steps. Exercise also stimulates the production of brain chemicals, such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), that encourage growth of new nerve connections. If you already exercise—keep going.

If you resist exercising, then add variety to re engage yourself. If you don’t exercise now, begin. Park two blocks from the store or the office, and walk the distance. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. The invigoration and joy of movement will build over time. You might schedule a walk with a friend, join a gym, and mark out your exercise time on a calendar as a reminder of your commitment.

3. Balance light and darkness
Changes in light can affect the brain, even if you’re not aware of it. For example, the lack of sufficient brightness in winter can lead to seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as the blues. When we move the clocks back and forth (from Daylight Savings to Standard Time), there are more accidents on the road. We need light. The brain uses it to enhance alertness. Even ambient light positively influences hormone release and heart rate. We also need darkness to synchronize our body clock. Indoor lights, computers, street lamps, and television sets can create too much brightness at night.

To restore the balance between light and dark, go outside in the morning for a walk in the daylight, use light boxes in the winter, turn off or dim the television and computer, darken the rooms of your house at dusk, and wear a good eyeshade when you sleep.

4. Learn
New skills help you do more than just say merci in French. Learning strengthens the whole brain. Start by simply trying new things: visit a new place, learn a song, and rearrange the furniture—they all stimulate your neurons. Or do normal things in odd ways, such as brushing your teeth with your left (non-dominant) hand, taking a new route home, or sleeping on the wrong side of the bed.

At first you might feel a little awkward or silly, but then you will begin to enjoy the challenge. Learn something new like quilting or bridge, or take a community class in engine repair or gourmet cooking. You can also try a new or harder Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. As a reward, you’ll come away with new skills and possibly give your brain a better chance against Alzheimer’s.

5. Create
For years, scientists believed the right side of the brain was responsible for creativity. However, the whole brain engages in creative thinking. You can stoke your creativity by getting bored (reducing time spent watching TV and movies, turning off the computer and video games, or not reading). Your brain will turn to itself for inspiration. You can also build time for creative experience: try a new craft, put a sketch pad on your desk, or make a date to spend a half hour each week writing, painting, knitting, or building a bird house.

Pump the creative well, and you’ll inspire yourself while building new neural connections. Remember, your brain is flexible and alive regardless of your age, and no matter how many keys or words you misplace. By reducing stimulation (take a cell-phone break, move your TV out of your bedroom, or turn down the volume on your radio) and making little changes, you’ll appreciate your wonderful brain. Start big or small, and you’ll find your brain coming back to life.

By Sondra Kornblatt, author of A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits. Source