October 08 2007

Pimp Your Brain: 8 Simple Tricks to Improve Cognition, Memory, and Alertness

By Sara
32 Comments

1. Just Use It

Did you know over 30% of high school graduates and over 40% of college graduates never read another book in their lives? If you want to keep your brain sharp, you have to keep those neurons firing. A good goal if you aren’t in the reading habit is one book per month. After a few months, see if you can step it up to one book per week. Television is passive while reading is active. I don’t have television anymore, and this helps me achieve my aim of reading 2 or 3 books weekly. (Though some books take a lot longer than others!) Developing the reading habit is difficult at first because it takes work. But, like physical exercise for your body, that’s how you know it is actually benefiting your brain. You don’t have to crawl in agony through Ulysses (seriously, take my word for it, you don’t); non-fiction and history are great choices, as well.

2. Stay Nimble

It’s a great idea to do crossword puzzles, games, quizzes, memory tests, and other mind-twisters. Even online computer games and Sudoku puzzles are fun ways to keep your brain active and sharp. Find some you like and do them frequently. Here are some games; or you can develop your logical reasoning. I like to study the logical fallacies. Yep, I’m a nerd. Sweet!

3. Get Enough Sleep!

Though it should go without saying, if you do not get adequate sleep every night, your cognitive function will be severely impaired. I used to have trouble sleeping, and even after dietary changes and increased exercise, I still had a tough time falling asleep. This made me grouchy in the mornings. I finally realized I wasn’t giving myself enough “processing” time. I would work and read and write all day, and then I’d exercise and try to go straight to bed. Bad idea. Now I play a little every night and even – horror of horrors – turn off the computer. Sometimes I slip back into my old ways, but I’m getting better. If you’ve got some good sleep tips, pass them along to the rest of us!

4. Drink water.

One of the simplest ways to stay alert and refreshed – particularly in the afternoon slump – is to drink pure, cool water. I used to enjoy running down to Starbucks for an afternoon latte, until my neighbor encouraged me to drink two full glasses of water after lunch instead. Not only is this much less costly, it’s very effective. Try it. (I still love my morning coffee, though…)

5. Manage stress. Here’s one tip.

Obviously, if you are stressed, your powers of concentration and your ability to be productive can become severely hampered. Though life has its ups and downs and we can’t eliminate stress entirely, managing it is key to maximizing your brainpower. There are many ways to do this, of course. I’d love for you to share your tips in the comments. Here’s one small thing that really made a significant change for me. We often say “it’s going to work out” when we are feeling anxious or uncertain. I’m betting you’ve probably said it many times, right? It’s a rational, sensible thing to say, after all. One day early this past summer, I was sitting idly in traffic thinking about a recent setback. I suddenly found myself thinking “no, it’s not going to work out – it is working out”. I started saying it to myself a lot. Being a so-called “type A” (A+, according to my friends), the tendency to over-think will probably always be something I have to manage. But simply making that verb change was really effective for me. It keeps me in the present instead of me wasting my present concentrating on possible futures that may or may not happen. This might seem obvious to you, but it really works well for me!

6. Cover the physical bases.

This means eating the right foods, for starters. Imagine your best friend wants to get healthy. You’d help them focus on eating the freshest, most natural, nutritious foods, and you wouldn’t tempt them with junk food, sugars, and processed snacks. Okay – your best friend is you.

7. Fish oil!

You all know I’m a dietary fat fanatic. I eat lots of fat, but I also take Mark’s fish oil pills – usually a double-dose, in fact. I recently went about a week without taking any out of sheer and utter slackitude, and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. However, you don’t have to take my word for it. Hundreds of studies have confirmed the amazing benefits of essential fatty acids – such as those available in fish oil – for your cognition, memory, and mood. I recommend going to PubMed and running a quick search if you want to start digging into the studies (they’re endless).

8. Don’t do things that will shrink your brain (literally).

Smoking and drug abuse and alcoholism have major consequences on mental function down the line. Nobody is perfect and we all have our indulgences, but if you are struggling with addiction or think you might be, do not be afraid to seek help.

Two 20-year-old female brains during memory task. Photo source.

There are many more excellent tips to improve cognition, memory, alertness and aptitude. What are yours?

Further reading:

10 Serotonin Boosters

Ultimate Brain Foods

16 Delicious Super Foods

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

TAGS:  mental health

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32 thoughts on “Pimp Your Brain: 8 Simple Tricks to Improve Cognition, Memory, and Alertness”

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  1. Great post.

    Regarding 1)….
    We have drummed into us that reading is enjoyment. Sure it is, but sometimes, not immediately. The Classics aren’t always instantly gratifying reads. They have context, and it’s good to read behind and around them, to understand *why* they’re challenging or downright obscure. Some books have to be pored over, savoured, because they’re so rich (go too quick, and you get sick). Challenging books are a gauntlet slapped across your face.
    And enjoyment can be learned.

    Regarding 5)….
    Same feeling here. Change is always something going on, right now. Having that feeling of control over my life by feeling able to exert pressure on my life right now, this instant…..90% of my old stresses evaporated away.
    Today is where tomorrow is getting fixed – not tomorrow.

  2. Great list! I can’t second enough the magic of fish Oil and getting sugar out of diets. So many of these brain issues/seizures/ADD (esp with kids) can be controlled or even eliminated 100% with the right dietary changes.

    The Brain loves fat (and IS fat)….sugar just short circuits it.

  3. Hmmm, sleep tips …
    Contrast light and dark heavily—no nightlights. Go from a light room to a completely dark room—shut all the lights off at once. Your circadian rhythm actually reacts to light by waking up your whole body.

    Try to find a natural source of tryptophan (my spelling may be off here). I’d tell you to drink a glass of milk before bed, but I already know how you feel about that. Milk only has trace amounts of the stuff anyway.

    Eliminate caffeine—it’s an adenosine antagonist, and adenosine is supposed to be one of the chemicals that has a soporific effect on your brain (although new studies are still evaluating that one).

    I think the exercise before sleep thing depends on what you’re doing and how you do it. Doing push-ups to complete exhaustion just before bed used to knock me out. I think if you hit complete muscle exhaustion (even on just one muscle group), the endorphin release can make up for your elevated heart rate.

    Lastly, clear your head or think about a time when you were utterly exhausted. Thinking about something that bothers you or is interesting or what you have to do the next day will not help you sleep.

  4. P.S. Caffeine takes about 4-6 hours to break down in your body, but when it does, one of its metabolites is theobromine, which, again, antagonizes adenosine. So the sleep-interrupting effect of caffeine may be longer-lasting than you think.

  5. Thanks once again for a great article. I visit your site every day, and have learned gobs of stuff.

    I would, however, encourage y’all to refrain from using language about ‘pimping’ anything — pimping human beings is a very real thing, and to see this phrasing used on a site meant to promote health of all kinds is jarring.

    The phrase ‘hacking your brain’ could have been used, and would have been more apropos, given that one would be improving one’s brain, rather than selling one’s brain for sexual favors.

    1. Really? Selling one’s brain for sexual favors. Give me a break. First of all that would be called whoring or prostituting your brain. Other than the meaning of pimp as the person that manages and solicits customers for prostitutes, pimp also means to dress elegantly, and is a colloquialism for to improve, make cool, make better. For example, pimp your ride.

    2. It is your right to be offended but our right not to care that you are.
      Carry on

      1. His comment was defining the words in context, and how pimp literally doesn’t create the meaning you pull out of thin air, that you commented about. I don’t think he was offended, maybe just annoyed at your inarticulate lack of cognition upon the subject. that you took from it and posted about. I’m also not offended, just thought I’d add a little bit of thought to the comments :). And this statement is in my opinion, but yes he is allowed to be offended, because you are not allowed to say something didn’t offend someone. But I don’t think in vice verse that you have a right to not care about someone offense, if you are the one creating it. Sounds egocentric to me. I hope you don’t read anything you didn’t write with such introspection. Careing about other people’s words, and thoughts is called learning.

  6. Wow, everyone, thanks for the awesome tips! Keep them coming!

    Mike OD, couldn’t agree more about the sugar.

    Jeff, you know, I appreciate your saying something about the headline. We debated it a bit as it has entered the slang cultural lexicon but the original meaning – and as you say, the very real nature of the word – isn’t so pleasant. Thanks for speaking up. What do you all think? I’m happy to change it to “hacks” or something else. You know there is actually a blog called “Pimp Your Work” that is all about work and computer hacks. Hmmm….thoughts?

    1. I have nothing against any of you I’m sure we could be great friends:), and I respect your issue with the word, but I’m at work and on break, so bear with me, just read from what you said about pimp thru to here, and while you do act like what you wrote was someone else and what he wrote was you. It’s just so glaring u state something, then he states almost a neutral comment, other then showing opposition at first, then you basically say whatever, and then say it’s your right to not care. Then…. The guy postes to you in minimal agreement, and you appreciate that he acknowledged(cared) about what you said, and that the term is displeasing to you, in the context of a article on strengthening your brains cognition, among many other parts. It’s just a mirror effect, and I become troubled by people’s disrespectful dismissiveness towards other’s, with your logic, then no one should care or do anything about what you have issues with, to be equal to you not caring about another’s issue. Your not better then anyone else in this planet, and I’m sure you don’t think you are but in your rhetoric it’s seems sub conscious. Well if you did read all this I hope you have a good day, and my only point is always care, and persieve more.

      1. I apologize for my murderous grammar, and punctuation. This is my first touch screen, and I didn’t have time to edit before it was gunna die.

  7. Stress: I have two major stress-management techniques, aside from getting enough exercise and sleep, which are definitely key. Without enough exercise I build it up like gunk in a coffee machine that never gets cleaned, and without enough sleep minor matters seem like something huge and overwhelming.

    1)I have pets. Not exactly a solution for everybody, but the major advantage of pets is that they ALWAYS live in the now; you have to switch gears to deal with them. The extra advantage of the dogs is that I can go play with them for an hour and quite rightly feel that I have done something good and necessary for them- and I had to disengage my anxieties about nebulous abstracts to do it.

    2)I developed a mental protocol to deal with persistent worries. I go through a step-by-step analysis of: 1)What is wrong, 2)Why that’s something to worry about, 3)What can I do about it? By the time I finish with three, the worry feels “dealt with” enough that I can much more easily shove it aside and go do something relaxing instead- even if the answer is “nothing right now”.

  8. First and foremost…WOAH! Seriously 30-40% NEVER read a book? I am in the book a week club myself and just can’t imagine life without my books!

    To sleep better I won’t work out for at least an hour before bedtime, and I sleep with the window open a crack. I fall right asleep and stay asleep until the alarm blasts.

    I definitely stress with the best of them. When I find myself in this mode I take a deep breath and write a list. I know not everyone is a list writer, but actually seeing it all written out shows me that it isn’t all that bad!

    I am choosing to ignore that bit about switching from coffee to water…even though I know you are right 😉

  9. The choice to use “pimp” gave me a moment’s pause.

    All of the suggestions for coping with stress and reducing it are very good. I recommend music, art, dance, etc., as means of self-expression. Play an instrument, draw a picture, dance with a music video. Take a course or private study, if possible. It’s cheaper than therapy and feels surprisingly like therapy, sometimes.

  10. What really helps sleep is to drink up on Gangsta Sauce! That stuff will gangstafy your face until consciousness is no longer possible!!

    CHEA!!!

  11. One for stress (not my own) from
    “Feel the fear and do it anyways”

    It’s simply when something goes wrong or you know something is going to go wrong you simply say to yourself

    “I can handle it!”

    ’nuff said.

    Good

  12. A lovely definition of stress – esp. for women, moms, and anyone always volunteering… although I admit I honestly can’t remember the source (otherwise I would credit it) is:

    Stress is when your mind says “No” while your mouth says “I would love to”

    And I love the picture of the brain coral – I have several of them in my aquarium…

  13. Its like you learn my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the guide in it or something. I think that you simply could do with a few % to pressure the message house a little bit, but instead of that, this is great blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  14. For you can also manage stress by fully focusing on each activity you need to do that day. Learning to only/fully concentrate on the activity at hand for about 25 minutes at a time, with short breaks in between, sounds like a gimmick but it helps. Check out the Pomodoro Technique – just Google it. It’s 100% free. This isn’t spam. It’s helping me out.

  15. Great article. It’s great to be able to quickly read down a list and pick out immediately things you can start doing right away to improve yourself. I am not a fan of fish oil but your tips are great.

  16. Good article. Thanks!

    Just my thought regarding the debate over the usage of ‘pimp’.

    One way to ‘pimp’ your brain is to have an open mind, and not agonise or get outraged at small, insignificant matters. Crazy, but it’s true.

    Never-the-less – having a debate is also good for the brain.

    Cheers
    Evan

  17. What do you think of using regular reminders as a “trigger” for such habits? I find it very helpful, but I’d like other peoples’ take on it.

    Also, an app I’m experimenting with related to this: http://quickmvp.com/imantra

  18. Here is the simple sleep trick. If some one, who is facing problem to get sleep quickly, here is the solution.
    Apply 3-4 mustard oil drops on your belly button, when you fall in bed for sleep. Put your finger on your belly buttons for 3-4 minutes. Repeat this for one week and then you will realize, what an incredible idea is this. And then you will never leave this trick. Arab women and men use this process from centuries and it gives many health benefits like skin freshness, better stomach working including solution for sleeplessness.
    The scientific process behind is that belly button is the center point of multiple nerves of body. When you apply oil in it is passes through to nerves into body. And this oiling helps many nerves to works smoothly. It reduces tension, depression and improves sleeps. If you do not believe, search in youtube.
    Try and you will never leave this amazing health trick.
    Note: Oil should not increase more than 4 drops.