You likely go to the gym to work your muscles, hike for endurance, and do yoga for flexibility—but how often does your brain get a workout?
If you don’t take care to exercise your brain regularly, it can wither, just like unworked muscles.
The human brain is made up of nerve cells called neurons, connected by synapses, which transport information from one neuron to the other. Just like other muscles and organs, the brain changes with age—synapses fire more slowly, some cells die off, and the overall mass of the organ shrinks.
But studies have shown that any exercising of the brain may not only stave off brain degeneration, but can also reverse memory loss and improve mental agility.
Here are some simple tips and tricks that can make your brain faster, sharper and smarter:
1. Try using mental models.
A mental model is a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind to help you interpret the world and understand the relationship between things. For example, supply and demand is a mental model that helps you understand the economy. Entropy is a mental model that makes sense of disorder and decay. And game theory is a mental model that helps you understand how relationships and trust work.
The brain needs a variety of mental models to piece together a complete picture of the world. The more sources you have to draw upon, the clearer your thinking becomes. The best thinkers avoid looking at life through the lens of one subject or strategy.
Here are some useful mental models you can use to improve brain function:
- Circle of competence. This mental model was developed by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to describe limiting your financial investments in areas where you may have limited understanding or experience. More broadly, it recommends recognizing the limits of your knowledge to develop an edge over others. When ego drives your undertakings, you wind up with cognitive blind spots. But understanding your circle of competence improves decision-making and outcomes.
- Occam’s razor. Attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam, this mental model holds that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones. Instead of wasting your time trying to disprove complex scenarios, you can make decisions more confidently by basing them on the explanation that has the fewest moving parts.
- Inversion. Most of us tend to think one way about a problem: forward. Inversion allows us to flip the problem around and think backward. Sometimes it’s good to start at the beginning, but it can be more useful to start at the end. Developed by the ancient Stoic philosophers, inversion is a powerful tool to improve your thinking because it helps you identify and remove obstacles to success.
- Hanlon’s razor. Named for Robert J. Hanlon, this philosophical razor suggests not attributing to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity. By not generally assuming that bad results are the fault of a bad actor, you look for options instead of missing opportunities. This model reiterates that people make mistakes and forces you to ask yourself: is another reasonable explanation?
These are just a few of thousands of useful mental models. The quality of our thinking is directly proportional to the number of models in our heads. The more models we have, the more likely we are to keep our brains sharp.
2. Play games.
The brain can be lazy. Once it realizes it has mastered something, it stops trying.
But there are steps you can take to increase the range of mental motion by activating different parts of the brain. The trick is to constantly push your limits. Brainteasers and other problem-solving games are useful here. Here are some options:
- Sodoku. To complete a Sudoku puzzle you have to look ahead and follow trails of consequences—if you put a six in this box, that one must be an eight and this one a four, etc. This “planning” helps improve short-term memory and concentration.
- Lumosity. Lumosity is one of the most-developed brain training websites around. It provides fun brain training and mental fitness games, tests, and activities backed by science. You’ll challenge your brain, and keep track of your results and improvement. In addition to the website, apps are available for iOS and Android, so you can train on the go.
- Crossword puzzles. Crosswords are a classic brain trainer, accessing not only verbal language but your memory from many dimensions of knowledge. Studies have shown that crossword puzzles may delay memory loss and preserve cognitive function.
- Peak. This free app provides more than 40 fun games to help you exercise your brain. Peak is designed to improve your memory, sharpen your problem-solving skills, and develop your mental agility. Each game has been developed by neuroscientists and the app offers in-depth insights to help you track your progress.
You should also do mental math whenever possible. Instead of whipping out your calculator app, calculate the tip in your head or try to total up the amount for items purchased at the grocery store.
Research shows that variation in our mental activity is the key to long-term success. By regularly putting your brain to work, you can improve memory and other types of cognitive function.
3. Exercise, meditate, and diet.
Regular exercise, proper nutrition, and mindfulness meditation all increase blood flow to the brain, which helps to enhance cognitive reserves.
In particular, research shows that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Other studies show that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are bigger in people who exercise than in people who don’t.
Diet is also an important component of brain health.
A Mediterranean-style diet rich in fish, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, olives, and nuts helps maintain brain health and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon are rich in fatty acids that have been shown to help neuron function. And don’t forget to take your Omega 3—these fatty acids play an important role in brain function and development.
Finally, mindfulness meditation is great for keeping your brain sharp. A recent UCLA study found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Likewise, a Harvard study found that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory.
Because nearly everything we do requires a sharp mind, these simple hacks are a no-brainer.