I asked this question on Facebook last week, and got a lot of suggestions (thanks a lot, folks!). There were several great ideas for exercising the brain, but I also got one saying, “The brain is not a muscle. It’s an organ!”. So let me be the first one to say it here – of course the brain is an organ. But it does have some properties of a muscle – for instance, it can be trained and made more powerful, more agile, and sharper.
So, assuming you’re with me on the muscle metaphor, how can you exercise your brain every day?
Before we go on, let’s talk about the different facets of the brain – the different skills that you can hone. Now, scientifically, there are many different ways to look at this. One article lists five different brain-skills, and Wikipedia’s page on Cognitive Development lists seven! But for all practical purposes, I think of three distinct skills to exercise:
- Agility – the speed and nimbleness of your brain. I’m sure you have those days, every once in a while, when it feels like your brain is fogged up, and you’re sleepwalking through your day. On those days, your brain is the opposite of agile. And you can fix that (unless it’s due to a hangover; everything has limits).
- Creativity – The thinking brain, at its most basic, is a pattern recognition device (I’m really going with the metaphors here). Even its primary function of building and retrieving memories is built on pattern recognition – that’s why, when you’re thinking of something and you let your mind wander, you find you’ve reached quite somewhere else. Most of the time, these seemingly random connections happen at the subliminal level, and you suddenly realize you’ve answered the very question you’re grappling with – that’s what Eureka moments are. This kind of creativity can be manufactured as well. You can train your brain to see patterns where others don’t, and come up with insightful ideas – which is what creativity really is.
- Memory: This is the biggest bugbear for our overburdened minds today. In this age of hyper-information, how do we remember everything of consequence, and extract it from our brains at the right time?
Let’s take these three areas one by one:
The adage “Healthy mind in a healthy body” rings perfectly true. If you’re not sleeping well and exercising regularly, then that’s what you should do first to make your mind more agile. Nevertheless, the different exercises below help quite significantly.
a. Learn a new skill
Whenever you learn a new skill, you create new neural pathways in your brain – making it fresher and more active. That’s why you feel more energetic whenever you learn something new. When you learn to play a musical instrument or dance, you are learning physical skills; but they have an impact on your brain as well. You’re learning a new way to use your limbs, so to speak, and that creates new routines in your brain.
I started learning Krav Maga, a self-defense technique, last year. For a pacifist like me, this is as new a skill as one can imagine. And over the last 15 months, whether or not I’ve become better at protecting myself (I still get beaten up by the wife), I definitely feel a lot more energetic, both physically and mentally.
b. Use Elevate
If you use an iPhone / Android smartphone, you must try Elevate. It’s an app that gives you a few brain exercises every day, across several areas – math, reading comprehension and agility, speaking precision, listening, etc. It takes just 5 minutes every day, and you’ll feel the difference in a matter of days.
I’ve been using Elevate for a few months now, and swear by it. Doing such thinking exercises every day sharpens your brain – builds a muscle memory, as it were (yes, I know the brain is not a muscle). And the best thing about the app is that it always challenges you. As you get better at these exercises, so do they get harder. And this constant effort at the boundary of your abilities is what makes you stronger – again, just like building muscles at a gym (OK, I’ll try to stop with the analogies now).
In summary, this is an excellent app to use. If there’s one thing you do after reading this post (apart from sleeping well and exercising) – download Elevate.
c. Meditate / Practise Mindfulness:
In our rush to get the most out of life, we tend to optimize away our time (I know I do). Do this for too long, and you face burnout.
Sometimes, you need to simplify, slow down, and clear your head. And meditation is a great way to recapture your energy. But you don’t have to sit in one place in padmasana and try and blank your mind. Rather, meditation is more about concentrating – concentrating on your breath, your limbs, etc. And meditation is closely related to mindfulness, or paying close attention to what you’re doing and thinking. And you don’t have to sit down to be mindful – focus when you’re doing even mundane tasks (like folding clothes). You’ll find that by the time you’re done (unless you’re doing laundry after a very long time), you’re the fresher for it.
I try this sometimes when I’m stuck in traffic on the way home – I keep my phone aside, and pay attention to what’s going on around me. That way, when I get home, I’m rested rather than frustrated, and rearing to get to work again. As they say, when life deals you lemons…
d. Daily writing:
I strongly recommend this as well. Every day, maybe just before going to sleep, write 500 words. You can write about anything – your day, a funny incident, an observation, anything. Putting your thoughts down helps you structure them and clear your head. And there’s nothing like a clear mind to dump more thoughts and information into.
Incidentally, this is why I started this blog – as an outlet for all my thoughts. Writing forces me to make sense of them, and draw out coherent implications. It also forces me to be rational – if I write about the different ways of being more productive, I HAVE to practise them myself. Can’t just keep giving gyaan (if the wife were to read my blog, she would roll her eyes here).
From as far back as I can remember, I’ve heard people talk about the left brain-right brain framework. People who are more analytical, logical and deductive are “left-brained”, and those who are more intuitive, subjective and creative are “right-brained”. I was always “left-brained” – good at math, computer engineer. People with liberal arts backgrounds are considered more creative, and “right-brained”.
However, not only is this left brain-right brain belief a myth, creativity is also something that can be learnt and cultivated. How do you do it? By strengthening the pattern recognition machine in your head. And how do you do that?
a. Creativity exercises:
A number of exercises help you train your brain’s creativity and improve your ability to come up with ideas. These may or may not have any real-world application, but each of them make you focus your mind on a particular problem and work at the boundary of your creative ability – thereby extending those boundaries too.
- Make lists: I first read about this on James Altucher’s Blog. In a post with the most over the top title ever (The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine), Altucher lays out a simple thesis for becoming more creative. Make lists of 10 ideas every day. But ideas for what? Whatever you want – 10 books that changed your life, 10 startup ideas in education, 10 blog posts to write, 10 knock-knock jokes, anything. This sounds random, but it works. Let’s say you try and make a list of 10 things you learnt from the last book you read – you’d probably be able to think of 3-4 very quickly. The next 2-3 will make you sweat a little. And the last 3 will tax your brain – the proverbial heavy lifting where muscles get made. Make these lists every day, and your idea muscle will, slowly but surely, grow stronger.
And every once in a while, you’ll come across a great idea that you cannot but follow through on. Starting my blog, creating the Startup Weekly newsletter, many of my blog posts (including this one!) are all, in one way or another, the result of this simple exercise that I do every morning on my train ride to work.
- Logical Puzzles: Logical puzzles, or lateral thinking problems, are a great way to practise thinking ‘out-of-the-box’. Doing such puzzles every so often, whether you get them right or you peek at the solution (I am an inveterate peeker), introduces you to different mental models or approaches to problem-solving, which will definitely stand you in good stead in real life (if only to amaze job interviewers who give you a puzzle you’ve seen before). There is a reason that ‘thinking out of the box’ has become such a cliché – it works, and while it can’t be taught, it can certainly be cultivated.
As a sample, try out this exam question that has taken the Internet by storm. And you can find many more online – just search for ‘logical thinking puzzles’ on Google.
b. Read books:
Books are a great way to expand your horizons, broaden your thinking, and build new patterns in your brain. Everyone should read. Whether you read 10, 20 or 50 books a year, you should read. They say experience is the best teacher, but you can only experience one life. Why not learn vicariously from the experiences of others – stand on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s words?
Some people I know read only fiction, and others can’t bring themselves to read anything other than non-fiction. I read both. Fiction, especially science fiction, helps expand your idea of the possible. And non-fiction grounds you, so you can apply these patterns to the real world. That sounds either way too abstruse or too fluffy, but you hopefully get the idea.
Memory is strongly related to Agility – the same things you do to improve your agility also improve your memory. So, sleeping well, exercising, clearing your mind from time to time, using Elevate – all help improve your attention and your memory. In addition:
a. Take notes. And review them:
I’ve written before about the advantages of making notes. Using a software like OneNote or Evernote to capture your thoughts helps you remove the open loops from your brain and free your mind to make more memories. I also use these to capture notes from books I read, interesting articles, etc.
But taking notes actually takes stuff OUT of your memory. How then is it strengthening it? For that, you need to review your notes from time to time. What we hear / read goes into our short-term memories. Reviewing these periodically gradually puts them into long-term memory (I’m sure the real process is far more complicated, but this is a simple working understanding).
I do this for every book I read, and I go through my notes from time to time. Done right, this is as good as re-reading the book – you refresh your memory of the key learnings from the book. Of course, making notes is slightly tedious. But think of it as just taking 10% longer to read a book.
b. Learn a new language:
Learning a new language has many advantages. A key one is that it helps you improve your memory. As you try and establish new patterns in your head to remember the new words you’ve learnt, you also evidently reengage old patterns. I strongly recommend Duolingo and Memrise for this. While Duolingo is the more popular one, Memrise helps you build more sticky memories – it encourages you to associate an image with every word, so that you can leverage not just your memory, but your brain’s pattern recognition machine as well (if there’s one term I’ve overused in this blog post apart from the muscle metaphor, it’s pattern recognition).
So there you are. To summarize (TL:DR): To strengthen your brain – sleep well, exercise, learn new skills, read a lot, write a lot, and use Elevate. And yes, take a break and clear your mind once in a while.
I was hoping this post would be shorter than my usual fare, but well, I hope that every time. Maybe next week. In the meantime, would love your thoughts on this post. Do especially tell me if there are any other things you do to exercise your brain. Comment here, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at @jithamithra.