If you’re clever (or were simply reading this blog way back in the days before the Mayans lied to us all) then you should remember that I wrote a prequel to this article titled ‘5 completely random and awesome ways to improve your brain’.
Obviously there was far too much awesome to fit in one article so I spread it out into two for your viewing pleasure.
The beauty of these tips is that they are things that we can try out right now. We’ll start with something fun…
1. Learn to juggle for permanent brain improvement
You wouldn’t think that juggling a bunch of chainsaws would be the definition of brainpower but actually there is evidence to suggest that while these circus lunatics definitely lack common sense, juggling in any form actually boosts your brain power.
Go grab your balls because you’re about to get your geek on.
Juggling has been shown to stimulate so called ‘white-matter’ in the part of the brain called the parietal lobe, responsible for connecting what we see with what we do.
A study at Oxford university had 24 subjects practice half hour a day for 6 weeks and then used a technique called ‘diffusion tensor imaging’ (which is probably a fancy way of saying ‘took a photo’) to compare these people with 24 others who did no juggling. The jugglers grew more white matter in the parietal lobe and amazingly it didn’t seem to matter how good they were, it was the process of learning the technique which made the difference.
Arne May of the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany goes one step further by suggesting that as far as your brain is concerned, learning a new activity is actually better than practising the skills you can already do well.
So there you go, you can throw anything you like into the air, panic and let everything crash back to earth and you will be improving your brain. Although I’m pretty sure that by at least trying to catch your balls progress will be that much faster.
2. Ditch the GPS to grow your brain
If you had to think of a particular profession that would require a bit of brain work, then being a cabbie would be somewhere behind sandwich making and sh*t shovelling in the intelligence stakes. Yet research has actually shown that driving a taxi around the streets of London can have a huge influence on the hippocampus part of the brain, which is responsible for navigational memory.
You may be thinking how this relates to you, and we’ll get there, but first a little explanation of why this phenomenon exists.
London cabbies have to learn over 25,000 street names within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross and it is this insane amount of memorisation and the random nature of their job which grows their brain. The simply have to use their navigational skills on a daily basis and where they differ from the rest of us is that most people are inherently lazy. The invention of the GPS has rendered our navigational ability totally redundant.
To explain this further, we use two primary methods of navigating: Spatial navigation or by stimulus-response methods. Taxi drivers for example use the former and those who use GPS engage in the latter. Spatial memory is then broken down into 3 more areas which are ‘place cells’, ‘head direction cells’ and ‘grid cells’. Place cells tell you your exact location based on various landmarks. It is thought that we can store hundreds of thousands of these location cells. Head direction cells point to which direction you are facing and grid cells tell us how far we have travelled.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scans were taken of various adults who were both GPS and non GPS users and the results proved that the area of the hippocampus relating to spatial memory was larger in those with a fear of robotic talking women.
Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot of McGill University in Montreal, Canada believes that it is the random nature of travelling to new places using new routes that increase our spatial memory and by ditching the GPS for good can help ward of cognitive impairment as we age. Or as Bohbot puts it, “use it or lose it.”
3. Meditation can make you happy
The thing with meditation is that it just isn’t cool enough for most people. It reduces stress you say? You can keep your cross legged ‘ommming’, I’m off to the gym to unleash my inner Klitschko and kill the punch bag.
It conjures up images of shiny headed monks, orange robes and uncomfortable silences. Yet there is one very good reason why all of us should be incorporating short meditation session in our daily lives – it can make us happier people.
As always with claims such as this, there is a study that shows the amazing brain boosting benefits of not actually using your brain at all. A research team from Massachusetts General Hospital had 16 people take part in an 8 week course of ‘mindfulness’ meditation and after looking at brain scans, found something amazing.
They discovered that the parts of the brain responsible for self-awareness and compassion grew while the part that focuses on all things stress related actually shrank.
The US government is even researching how their marines can utilise meditation to make them more effective in the battlefield – because nothing will scare the enemy more than witnessing some really cheerful troops.
4. Learn from actors to hack your memory retaining ability
Judging by the amount of drivel that infests our screens these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that this acting lark is a piece of cake. Well, all you budding Keanu’s out there can hold on for a minute. Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois has been studying actors for over 20 years and has discovered that there is more to their performance than simply memorising their lines.
Her most impressive discovery is that when receiving the script, an actor will engage in what is known as ‘active experiencing’. This is when the actor will use all physical, mental and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of the material to another person. When they first receive their script they will first ‘mine’ the words for various emotional cues and then use these as a reference point when later rehearsing the performance.
The ability to link words and emotions through physical movements is the final piece in this process. During rehearsals an actor will carefully walk the same path and perform the same mannerisms and movements as they will in the actual performance. This ‘anchoring’ of words to their actions helps them recall the dialogue with ease.
This method works so well that a group of older people taking part in a 4 week acting course significantly improved their cognitive functioning compared to a control group. Another interesting aspect of this that researchers also noted, was that students who imagined explaining the information they were learning to another person again showed better retention than those who attempted to learn using traditional methods.
5. Watching horror movies train our brain for real conflicts
Whilst every Halloween we marvel at how anyone would want to sit through yet another Paranormal Activity film, research suggests that we seek out scary movies to fill a biological need to keep our defence mechanism alert.
Stuart Fischoff from California State University’s Media Psychology Lab suggests that the main reason we have this love-hate relationship with scaring ourselves silly is because our primal mind still rules our modern way of living. Unless you live in Detroit, it’s unlikely that you will face danger on a daily basis so the best way to keep our defence mechanism alert is to live vicariously through our on screen victims.
‘Movie monsters provide us with the opportunity to see and learn strategies of coping with real-life monsters should we run into them, despite all probabilities to the contrary,’ says Fischoff.
‘A sort of covert rehearsal for… who knows what.’
The reason why horror is so good at keeping us alert is that the majority of these films focus on the primal fear that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger. Think of the scariest film you have ever seen. There is a high probability that it will contain one of the following; Blood, darkness, confined spaces, beasts, heights, storms, being alone and stranger danger! These primal fears remain in our modern world and while it’s very possible that you may live alone (probably because no one likes you) but there is far less danger of running into a large carnivore. This is where horror movies fill a niche.
A study by Thomas Straube and his colleagues at Friedrich-SchillerUniversity of Jena was carried out to see if this theory was correct. They used an fMRI to monitor 40 participants as they watched several horror movies and what was amazing was these scans didn’t show any abnormal activity in the part of the brain associated with fear. Instead these scary films triggered increased activity in the visual cortex and the insular cortex (a region involved in self-awareness).
This shows that it isn’t the desensitising of fear that is crucial here, it is the fact we tend to focus on how we would handle these potentially dangerous situations should they happen to us.
And by handle, we don’t mean shriek like a baby and cower under the covers.