What is smart? Some people judge smarts by standard benchmarks like test scores and grade point averages. Others think common sense, problem solving abilities and "street smarts" define intelligence. Standardized testing scores have proven unreliable and biased along racial and socioeconomic lines, and cramming for classes can lead to GPAs that aren't a true indicator of intelligence.
While we can't all agree on a standard for intelligence, we can agree that the human brain is the key to all of them. It has a great capacity to adapt, rewire and grow. Neural networks expand and strengthen through learning experiences. Stimuli make the brain stronger and more vital. This reinforcement of the brain's power affects intelligence across all standards, from street smarts to testing scores. Here are five ways you can increase your brain's capacity to take in and store new data. Or, said more simply, here's how you can get smarter.
For thousands of years, we've known the benefits of meditation. The practice of meditation can be different for each person, but it generally involves quiet, focused breathing exercises in which the practitioner is able to achieve a state of mental calm. Regardless of whether you believe that this mental calm is an enlightened state of consciousness, no one can deny the benefits of relaxed, focused breathing. FMRI scans have revealed that regular meditation also affects the actual structure of the brain. Researchers believe that memory, function, attention span and focus all benefit from meditation. One study showed that regular daily meditation can even increase the size of parts of the cerebral cortex. Not surprisingly, some of the world's leading and forward-thinking corporations offer meditation classes for their employees.
The brain, like many parts of the human body, needs regular exercise in order to maintain strength and vitality. Some more common brain strengthening exercises include fun activities like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other word- and number-based brain teasers. There are other more academic ways as well, like completing math word problems and exercises relating to spatial relationships and geometry. Even simply reading this article gives your brain a slight workout. If these ideas are a little too scholarly for you, try simple things like mixing up your routine. Just brushing your teeth with the opposite hand or walking a different way to work forces your brain to work harder than usual, which is ultimately what you want to do.
In June 2010, researchers at The Sage Colleges presented findings that show certain types of bacteria commonly found in dirt made mice "smarter." The mice given Mycobacterium vaccae performed better in maze tests and showed fewer signs of anxiety and higher levels of serotonin in the forebrain, the area that takes care of higher-order thinking. The bacteria seem to promote the growth of neurons as well. This doesn't mean that we should all go out and start shoveling dirt in our mouths: You can actually ingest it by doing yard work, gardening and even by simply taking a walk through the woods.
Wakeful exercises for the brain are great and necessary to help improve brain function so you can get smarter. But what about sleep? Not a whole lot is known about sleep, but we know now that scientists were wrong for years with the belief that the brain simply shut down during sleep to recharge. Research now indicates that the brain may actually do a little nighttime filing during sleep. The information from the previous day is catalogued and put in the proper mental folders so it can make the journey from short-term memory to long-term. Sleeping problems have been known to exacerbate other brain issues, so it makes sense that a good night's sleep can help increase the brain's function and ability to focus. It varies from person to person, but between six and eight hours of sleep for adults is generally recommended.
The human body is all connected, so you can't take care of one part of it without benefiting some other part. Physical exercise is important for good health, for both the body and the brain. Simply increasing your blood flow kicks up the oxygen and glucose levels in the brain. The coordination it takes to perform exercises also gives the brain a workout, especially if you're trying something new. Exercise also means you're battling sedentary lifestyle, or one free from mental stimuli.
Food is also important. There are many foods that have been associated with brain health, including fish oil, eggs, protein and dark green vegetables. Green tea, herbal tea and nuts are also good "brain food." Eating right, getting the required amount of sleep and exercises, both mental and physical, are the keys to improving memory and overall brain function.
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- "The Human Brain." The Franklin Institute. 2010.http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/exercise.html#physicalexercise
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- Cullen, Lisa. "How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time." Time.com. Jan. 10, 2006.http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-1,00.html
- Tierny, John. "How to Get Smarter." Nytimes.com. Aug. 25, 2008.http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/how-to-get-smarter/