There’s more to improving grey matter than playing Sudoku. Follow our three-step guide to a sharper brain in a month…
Did you know…
Our brains are a staggering feat of engineering. From the third week of gestation to old age, our grey matter is changing constantly. Its size increases fourfold before we hit school age, and by age six it has reached 90% of adult volume. On the downside, our brains reach peak performance between 16 and 25, after which cognitive decline kicks in. This is when we may struggle to recall names and learn new skills.
Before you panic, you’ll be relieved to hear you can make proactive lifestyle changes that will sharpen your brain in 28 days – yes, really – and could also reduce the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive impairments.
All it takes is three simple steps: decluttering, de-stressing, and retraining.
“The brain is just like any other body part – it needs to be looked after and exercised in order to stay fit, strong and functioning effectively,” says neuroradiologist Dr Emer MacSweeney.
Our brains can store as much information as the entire Internet – mind-blowing, indeed. While being informed is never bad, overstimulation can be – the brain’s ability to problem-solve decreases and neurons can be destroyed.
“When we have a clearer mind we’re able to make better decisions,” says clinical hypnotherapist Fiona Lamb. “By decluttering our brain, our mind becomes sharper.”
Do a digital detox
“Endless calls and notifications are addictive,” says life coach Carole Ann Rice. Take time away from your phone – read, meet a friend. And download the Space app, (free on iOS/Apple; Android), which encourages mindful screen time.
Say ta-ta to to-dos
Endless checklists might make us feel organised, but they actually drain our brains. Carole suggests employing her concept of Do it, Dump it, or Delegate it.
* Do it: Devote time to completing a task entirely. Be realistic about how long it’ll take, and focus on one thing at a time.
* Dump it: Say ‘no’ more often – it stops you becoming overloaded. Don’t do something out of obligation, and ensure you leave ‘white space’ in your diary (at least a couple of days free) just for you.
* Delegate it: Don’t have the time, energy, or inclination for a task? Ask for help. Do a ‘skills swap’ – whatever you dislike doing, someone else might love.
“Exercising boosts blood flow, and releases happy hormones dopamine and serotonin,” says Fiona. “This clears the mind and strengthens brain nerve cells.”
Dancing, in particular, requires mental skills and multitasking, which improve cognitive function and slows ageing.
2. De-stress and switch off
“Having too many commitments and making other people’s needs our responsibility can feel overwhelming,” says Carole.
High stress levels can block memory processes, making us forget what we’ve learnt. And, more importantly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that each stressful incident could age your brain by 1,5 years.
Want to tap into your creativity? Jumping out of bed stressed won’t help.
“When you’re in a stressed beta-brainwave mode, you’re focused on a particular goal or problem – great for when you know what you’re doing, but not so good for creative thinking or problem-solving,” explains beditation creator Laurence Shorter.
‘Beditating’ involves spending five minutes in bed before getting up, and slows down and relaxes your brainwaves, so you move from stress-driven beta-wave mode into relaxed alpha-wave mode. Here’s how to do it…
* Lie there and do nothing: Don’t scramble out of bed in a mad frenzy first thing. Acknowledge the voice in your head that says you need to be doing something, but don’t react. Also be mindful of your body lying in the bed.
* This should relax you: Don’t worry or force it if you struggle to feel calm. Just repeat the process until you do.
* Once you feel relaxed, ask yourself: “What are my priorities for the day?” Don’t worry if the answer doesn’t come to you immediately. Hopefully, by unwinding, you’ll give your brain space to think and conjure up creative solutions to make you feel composed and prepared for the day.
Swap busy for breathe
Using words like ‘stressed’ or ‘busy’ can make you feel anxious. Every time you think ‘busy’, swap it for ‘breathe’ – then take a deep breath in and out.
Feel the pressure
Sleep is key for numerous brain functions, including how neurons communicate, and the removal of toxic build-up. But a jam-packed brain can stop you switching off and dropping off.
Try this snooze-inducing trick – rub the spot behind your ear where your neck muscles connect with your jawline. “It’s one of the most relaxing points in the body,” says acupuncturist Gillian Berry. Activating pressure points is thought to boost your natural relaxation response.
3. Brain training
Challenge your grey matter to prevent cognitive decline…
* Make a fist: Want to memorise a shopping list? Ball up your right hand and squeeze. To recall the information later, clench your left fist. Researchers think the movements activate brain regions key for recalling memories.
* Jog on: A Cambridge University study revealed that jogging twice a week causes growth of new brain cells linked to the recollection of memories.
* Switch sides: Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. This stimulates interaction between the two sides of the brain, forming new neural pathways.
* Watch the booze: A study in the British Medical Journal showed even moderate drinking (7 to 14 units a week) is tied to pathological changes in the brain. According to the experts, there is no safe drinking level, but limiting alcohol to less than seven units a week may lower the risk of health problems.
* Learn another language: This requires a specific type of brain training, which enables us to alternate between languages. It may delay the onset of dementia by 4,5 years. In a study by the University of Edinburgh, the over-56s performed better than the 18 to 30s in cognitive tests after attending language lessons for four weeks.
Be a bookworm
Reading keeps your brain young. With every page, our brain works to store and retain more information.
Researchers from Emory University in the US, discovered heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex (in charge of memory storage) after participants read a book over nine days.
Words, Natalia Lubomirski