Fine-tuning brain function


Today, we have another post on the brain. It’s based on a really interesting course that shares its name with a post I did a while ago. I have tried to not make it too technical, but have included some links for those who wish to read more on the topic. Anyway, I hope you find this as interesting as I do!

How can we optimise brain function?

The brain’s ability to adapt to our experiences (plasticity) allows us, through our own efforts, to increase our intellectual capacity.

Our brains rely on experiences and, contrary to popular belief, continue to develop throughout our lives (even creating new neurons, as recent studies have shown). Therefore, it doesn’t matter how old we are, we always have time to modify the structure of our brains.

The “enriched” areas (with their many stimuli) seem to provide us with a way of achieving optimal brain development.

It has been observed that, when given toys, companions and more spacious living conditions, the animals under study generate more cells, seem to become more intelligent and perform better in behavioural tests.

Sensory and social isolation in the first years of life makes people less intelligent and affects their emotional health, as well as their ability to adapt. However, the development of our brain does not just rely on stimuli in the early years of life; our activities and thoughts are constantly modifying our brains. Intelligence is not something we are born with, but is rather something we can change. It is a dynamic process that we may influence either for better or worse, according to what we do throughout the course of our lives.

A proper diet, exercise and enough hours of sleep are of vital importance to the proper functioning of the brain. Generally, what’s good for the body is good for the brain, too. By reducing your unnecessary calorie intake, you can avoid obesity, which nowadays is known to be a risk factor for dementia and other cognitive impairments in old age. Several studies show that doing regular exercise produces positive changes in brain function in both children and adults. Increasing the number of hours you sleep may also lead to a great improvement in intellectual capacity at any age. This is particularly relevant to students, who, when they sleep more, tend to get better grades. Short naps of between 10 and 20 minutes may also help to improve memory consolidation and cognitive performance.

Primary memory, also known as short-term memory, is the key element in the most important mental operation that the human brain can carry out: manipulating stored information. By improving your working memory, you can increase not only your IQ, but your creativity levels, too. Deliberate practice is the key to improving performance and creativity in all areas of human activity, including work and play.

In order to fully optimise the brain’s performance, we must have a large attention span. The brain’s ability to focus is equivalent to the body’s capacity for endurance – it’s something we can train.

In order to focus your attention, you have to keep two essential aspects of our culture under control: distractions and multi-tasking. This is something that translators and interpreters know all about. When we focus our attention on something, we find it less difficult to learn and work with that thing, and it’s more likely that we’ll remember it later. It’s important to stop working in “multi-tasking mode”, as the brain is actually unable to do two things at once.

A question a lot of people ask is “if we can find the answer to any question almost instantly on the internet, then why bother memorising or learning anything?”

The act of remembering something facilitates the activation and retention of brain circuits which contribute to optimal brain function. The abuse of electronic (and non-electronic) tools may result in atrophy, caused by the disuse of the faculties of our memory.

By forcing our brains to acquire new information throughout our lives, we create a cognitive reserve, and the bigger this reserve is, the less susceptible we are to cognitive impairment in old age. Our brains don’t have a “storage limit”.

Generally, the more we learn and the more knowledge we gain throughout our lives, the less likely we are to suffer from senile dementia in old age, and learning a foreign language (no matter the age at which we do it) can help us dramatically, not only to develop our brains, but also to avoid (or better, deal with) illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. It seems that translators and anyone else that has learnt a foreign language is in luck…

What are your experiences with learning? Have you tried to improve your brain using any of the “tricks” mentioned here? What was your experience like? As you know, we love to know what you think – leave your comments.


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