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How to become smarter: 10 secrets (backed by research)

To be human is to learn.

From the moment we are born to the moment we die, our brains are taking in a staggering amount of information.

It’s mind-blowing when you stop and think about what you actually take in on a regular basis.

Your brain really is like a sponge.

But as we get older, we tend to shy away from learning. Our confidence in ourselves to pick up new skills is lost and we don’t always have the stamina to learn new things.

With a few small changes each day, you can make yourself smarter, have more confidence, and learn new things that will make your life rich and fulfilling in different ways.

Here are ten tips to help you become smarter by the day.

1) Change things up.

The fastest way to get your brain to sit up and pay attention is to change things up on the regular.

It’s no secret that humans love routine. We don’t particularly like change. It’s stressful and it can upset our ability to complete day-to-day tasks.

But this causes us, and in particular, our brains to become comfortable and passive.

And as we know, progress rarely happens when you’re stuck in your comfort zone.

But by switching things up, you force your brain to think about what you’re doing.

For example, you could walk a different route to work, or you could try new apps on your phone, or you could even try brushing your teeth with your opposite hand

Every time you force yourself to make a change, you encourage your brain to make new connections (this is called neuroplasticity).

When you’re stuck in your day-to-day routines, your brain remains on idle, and no new connections are formed.

But by changing your habits daily, even for small tasks, you force your brain to pay attention and learn.

New experiences have health benefits, too.

Norman Doidge, writes in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science”, “Not all activities are equal in this regard. Those that involve genuine concentration — studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, and dancing — are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration.”

2) Take breaks. 

Take time for yourself in the midst of your workday or weekend day.

Rather than just work straight through the day, take 10 or 15-minute breaks and make sure you get up and move around to let your blood flow and your brain focus on something that’s not work-related.

It might seem counterintuitive to walk away from a project when you are onto something, but that break might be just what you need to get to the next level.

Rather than decide at the moment when it’s a good time to take a break, schedule breaks that you can look forward to.

We say this because lazy people are going to look for any excuse to stop what they are doing and sit down, turn on Netflix and go back to being a slouch.

When planning your day, consider how many breaks you want, and schedule them.

Recent studies show that those who take a break once an hour performs better than those who just keep at it without a break.

“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!” – University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who led the study.

You’ll probably still get more work done than most people even if you are working only 40 minutes of every 60 minutes on the job, and you’ll feel more productive, have something to look forward to, and can maintain that momentum.

You might even find that you like working like that and things aren’t as bad as you thought they were in the first place.

A great activity you can do on your break is meditation.

Research published in the journal Brain Research Bulletin has found that meditation allows you to manipulate your alpha rhythms in the somatosensory cortex part of the brain to help you clear your mind and focus:

“Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.” – Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper

3) Listen to music or practice playing music.

Listen to different kinds of music and if you are feeling ambitious, take up learning a new instrument.

Putting your brain in situations that are unfamiliar may be uncomfortable – physically and mentally – but it’s the best thing for a brain to grow.

Change helps your brain expand and learn to make connections between memory and thoughts.

“There are so many components to music”, according to Dr.Cuddy, “and the networks are distributed through the brain.”

In other words, music activates different areas in the brain, which is important for keeping the brain fit and healthy.

Scientifically, music has been found to be beneficial in several areas. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “music is an effective stress reducer in both healthy individuals and people with health problems”.

Research has also found that soothing music can decrease blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels in heart patients.

This is all well and good, but has music been proven to make you smarter?

According to the research, “music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory”.

The question is, what kind of music can improve your focus?

The research study found that musical techniques used by composers 200 years ago help the brain organize incoming information. This includes music from artists such as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.

4) Use brain games to stay sharp.

Your phone is good for more than just taking pictures and texting friends you don’t want to call.
It can also be used to help your brain stay sharp.

Brain games, puzzle games, and even word games can help keep your brain on its toes and make for a much more useful phone!

Several studies have found that brain-training games improve the “executive function, working memory, and processing speed” of young people. Some games, like Lumosity or Elevate, even state that their games preserve cognitive health in seniors.

While some of the research is a little controversial, it’s clear that brain games keep you on your toes and provide some benefit to your brain.

According to a research study carried out at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, which studied 51 normal healthy subjects in the use of the brain game Lumosity, brain games produce a significant improvement in player’s attention and motor speed over a period of one month.

“An improvement in different cognitive domains was noted, including attention and motor speed.”

5) Take to the trail and exercise.

Getting outside is a key ingredient for intelligent people.

Humans weren’t meant to be indoors all day long sitting at computers. When you get outside, your brain will react in positive ways, and your waistline will too.

It’s mainstream information to know that exercise is good for your health, but recent research is suggesting that it’s great for your mind, too.

Harvard Health Blog says that aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart:

“Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.”

Why is exercise so powerful?

Because exercise decreases the levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, while also stimulating the production of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin which are natural painkillers and mood elevators.

This is why exercise is known to clear the mind. Furthermore, physical activity can improve the brain’s “plasticity” – which can enhance the brain’s ability to learn.

In a study conducted at the University of Adelaide in Australia, a small group of adults was found to show a significant increase in neuroplasticity after a 30-minute session of vigorous activity.

In short, exercise can make you happy and smarter at the same time. Pretty good if you ask me!

6) Eat something different.

Don’t just try new foods because you are bored with chicken and rice, try new foods because it brings your brain to life!

When you experience new food and eat better, your brain works better. It turns out that taking care of yourself is a great way to take care of your brain power that can make you a smarter human being.

Furthermore, there are certain “brain foods” that can keep your brain healthy. These include the following:

Green, leafy vegetables: Leafy greens like kale, collards, and broccoli have been shown to slow cognitive decline. They have brain-healthy nutrients vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta carotene.

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Fatty fish: These are abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, and these have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid – the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Berries: A study published in the Annals of Neurology found that women who ate consumed 2 or more servings of blueberries each week reduced memory decline by up to 2 and a half years.

Tea and coffee: Coffee lovers rejoice! The caffeine consumption might do more for you than waking you up and giving you a short concentration boost. According to a 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of cognitive function.

Walnuts: We know that nuts are great sources of protein and healthy fats, but there is one nut, in particular, that might improve cognitive performance: walnuts. Walnuts have a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries.

7) Meditate.

You have heard of the plasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to alter its structure by forming new neurological connections.

Meditation – essentially sitting still and paying no attention to any arising thoughts – a seemingly non-active state also changes the physical structure of the brain. And the change can happen in a short time – only eight weeks.

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard conducted an eight-week study that involved mindfulness meditation.

The study involved 16 study participants who did 30 minutes of mindfulness exercises per day over a period of eight weeks.

The mindfulness practices involved listening to guided meditations and practicing not to judge sensations, feelings or general state of mind. MRI were taken two weeks prior to the study and after it was completed.

The MRI revealed that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increases the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, and empathy.

At the same time, a decrease was measured in the physical mass of the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress.

The question is: how do you practice meditation?

Here’s some great advice from the meditation experts at Hack Spirit:

Here are the 4 steps to get you started:

1) Select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruption.

2) Get comfortable.

Find a body position that makes you relaxed and comfortable.

3) Try to get into a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Let your mind go blank.

If thoughts and worries appear, just acknowledge them then go back to trying to be relaxed and thoughtless.

4) Concentrate on a mental device.

You could use a mantra, or a simple word, that is repeated over and over. Or you could stare at a fixed object. Whatever it is, the goal is to focus on something so you block out thoughts and distractions.

8) Read something every single day.

Give yourself the gift of reading. It’s amazing that humans can read at all.

Our brains are not wired for reading and comprehension. We’ve developed the ability to read through necessity but it’s something our brains struggle with on a regular basis.

The more you do it, the better you’ll be at it and the more you’ll learn.

As Dr. Seuss once wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Research has found that reading on the regular can you make smarter. Just like exercise is great for your cardiovascular system, reading gives your brain a workout and improves your memory and attention.

What’s more, reading has also been shown to improve empathy.

Dr. Wade Fish, Director at Northcentral University’s Graduate School, said, “Reading expands a person’s appreciation toward other life experiences the reader is not personally experiencing, especially when reading topics that are not related to that reader’s job or lifestyle.”

9) Practice remembering.

Retrieving information is as important as collecting it. When you practice remembering, you are helping your brain make connections between the here and now and what might otherwise be lost if you didn’t give it attention.

Thinking about different times in your life also helps you to learn more about yourself and how you react in certain situations.

It’s important for your brain to train to remember things. Irish researchers found that participants could actually recall more information through extended exercises in rote learning.

Rote learning was found to benefit the hippocampus, a key area in the brain for episodic and spatial memory.

So practice remembering things. You’ll be doing your brain a big favor.

10) Learn a new language or something that feels as hard.

Whatever your first language is, try learning another one.

Even if you never learn a single word, the act of trying to learn will expand your brain power and help you see that hard things are worth doing.

Of course, you’ll certainly learn more than you expect to learn, but give yourself time and do it either way.

Your brain loves learning that things that are new and complex and a new language is certainly that.

And compared to people who only speak one language, people who speak multiple languages have found to have higher general intelligence and overall superior cognitive abilities.

The best bit? Science has found that learning a second language may help improve your brain function, regardless of when you start.

Researchers found that people who spoke 2 languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who only spoke one language, irrespective of whether they had learned a second language as an adult or as a kid.

According to the researchers:

“Nothing I can think of is more difficult or more cognitively engaging than trying to learn another language…Learning a second language at any age “is an excellent activity to maintain cognitive function.”

Sum Up

To become smarter:

1) Change things up: Every time you force yourself to try something new, you encourage your brain to make new connections.

2) Take breaks: Studies show that people who take a break once an hour outperform people who work without taking a break.

3) Play or listen to music: Music activates different areas in the brain, which is important for keeping the brain fit and healthy.

4) Use brain games to stay sharp: Download brain games on your phone. Studies show they improve attention and motor speed.

5) Exercise: Exercise can make you happy and smarter at the same time.

6) Eat certain foods: Eat green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, berries, tea and coffee, and walnuts to give your brain a boost.

7) Meditate: Meditation can help you improve your memory and empathy, while also decreasing stress and anxiety – known negative cognitive influencers.

8) Read every day: Just like exercise is great for your cardiovascular system, reading gives your brain a workout and improves your memory and attention.

9) Practice remembering things: Rote learning has been found to benefit the hippocampus, a key area in the brain for episodic and spatial memory.

10) Learn a new language: Science has found that learning a second language may help improve your brain function, regardless of when you start.

 

 

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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