The brain is the most extraordinary organ gifted to man. But it is not to be taken for granted. Simulation and exercise are its only fodder, for keeping it up and running. Besides improving brain function, it also protects against cognitive decline. Research tells us that just using the brain, veritably increases the number of dendritic branches that connect brain cells.
You might be surprised to learn that when we are awake there’s a section of the brain that wants us to sleep and when we are asleep there’s a section of the brain that wants us to be awake. We understand that we learn when we are awake; however, did you know that when we sleep we are still learning.
Our brain plays reruns of what we learned during the day thousands and thousands of times during our sleeping hours. We grasp the concept that we are less effective without sleep. There is a loss of working memory, we have mood swings, our reasoning is altered, our motor skills and responses change in a negative manner. It is not determined the amount of sleep that each individual requires. Many factors such as our age and our gender need to be taken into account. Research shows that about mid-day or around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we flat line, which is about mid point from your sleeping time and your waking time.A short nap can positively affect productivity.
Why is it so important to exercise our brains?
In laymen language, without exercise, the brain is prone to getting atrophied or destroyed. The benefits are both short-term (improved concentration and memory, sustained mental clarity, coherent thinking and co-ordination), and long-term (creation of a “brain reserve” that guards against Alzheimer’s).
How exercise trains the brain?
Christin Anderson, MS, fitness coordinator of the University of San Francisco, explains that exercise affects many sites within the nervous system and sets off pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calm, happy, and euphoric.
Listed below are some ways in which you can train your brain, ensure sound operation and persistently improve its performance:
Engage your brain with unfamiliar tasks
It is important to challenge your brain to learn novel tasks, especially ones you have not experimented before.
- Preparing a new dish, learn a software application, shop at a different grocery store, play a new computer game.
- Switch the hand you normally use to control the computer mouse, television remote, to brush your teeth, or dial the phone.
- You will notice that you are quite uncomfortable and awkward at handling it at the initial stage. But don’t worry you are teaching your brain to be flexible and equipping it to handle new chores.
Travel stimulates brain
Travel is a great way to stimulate your brain. It worked for our ancestors, whose nomadic lifestyle provided tremendous opportunity for visiting new places, learning new things and discovering unknown facts.
Neurobics is a unique assortment of brain exercises employing your five physical senses and your emotional sense in unexpected ways, encouraging you to stir up your everyday routines. They help your brain manufacture its own nutrients that strengthen, preserve, and grow brain cells.
Try using more than one of your senses in an everyday task
Did you know that physical exercise is also good for your brain? It is important because it influences the rate of creation of new neurons in our brains.Brisk walking for an hour or running, are excellent brain stimulators.
Read while you are eating, write while listening to a lecture
“Read, read, read,” says Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland. Don’t just limit your reading to magazines and newspapers. Try reading two kinds of books at the same time. Alternate, fiction with non fiction. They will not only help enrich your vocabulary but will also call out to both your creative and your practical sides.
Strengthen your memory
- Try to memorize the phone numbers you use most often.
- Try to recollect and recapitulate facts and information you have gathered in a day. This will help you recall it later when need arises.
- Try to recollect the headlines of the morning daily you read.
- There are plenty of programs out there that will help with your memory. “Brain Age” or “Big Brain Academy” for the Nintendo DS are recommended and fun. These games were specifically made for improving your memory.
This is a versatile thing. Never divorce yourself with learning. Try learning one or two facts daily, make it a habit. Before going to bed, ask yourself, what you learnt for the day. Help your children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends with their subjects, project etc.
Most newspapers supply fresh sudoku or crosswords everyday. Try your hand at brainteasers, riddles and different types of puzzles sold in books. You can even avail of a good supply on the internet. Try solving these. These hone your problem solving skills. Play scrabble and storm over the Rubik’s cube for 15 mins daily.
Exercise your structuralizing ability
- Pick a sentence from a magazine or newspaper and try to make another sentence using the same words.
- Practice fixing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together as quickly as possible. Improve upon the time you take to solve it.
Exercise your logic abilities
Logic is the art of reasoning–finding an orderly sequence for disparate elements. Don’t use a written list while shopping. Instead, use memory aids, such as forming a complete word, or one that can be completed by adding a certain vowel or consonant from the first letters of the words for the things you need to buy. Or, use anything that works for you.
Exercise your verbal abilities
Listen to the morning news on the radio or TV. During the day, jot down the main points of the news that you remember. Try adding new words to your dictionary everyday. Each time you come to the end of a chapter in a book you are reading, summarize it as briefly as possible. Do the same for the whole book when you finish it.
Move your fingers to improve your brain
Motor activities that use your fingertips, like crocheting, knitting, playing the piano etc. are reported to stimulate the brain. A map of the brain shows that the nerve endings on your fingertips correspond to more areas of the brain than any other body area, except perhaps the tongue and lips.
Sing to solve problems
When you are alone in your car, try singing about something you are working on. This stimulates your right brain. It is easier to rhyme when you sing than when you just speak or write. This is because the right brain is better at pattern recognition.
Music on and massage
- Use the Mozart Effect – classical music increases brain activity more positively than other kinds of music. Two pieces of Mozart’s music; Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448) and Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), were found to have this effect.
- Stimulate brain acuity with self-massage
- Acupressure points on your neck, at the base of the skull, helps improve concentration and memory.
Increase the intake of foods containing omega fatty acids (known to boost intellectual stamina). Prefer green vegetables to activate and strengthen brain cells.
1. Exercise & get your body moving
Exercising doesn’t just exercise the body, it also helps to exercise your brain. Obesity and the myriad of diseases that eventually set in as a result of being overweight can cause serious harm to the brain. Furthermore, without regular exercise plaque starts to build up in your arteries and your blood vessels begin to lose the ability to effectively pump blood. Plaque buildup leads to heart attacks, but it also reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients that your blood carries to your brain. When the nutrients don’t make it there, the brain’s ability to function is compromised. To prevent this from happening, make sure you get moving every day, even if its just a brisk walk, it’ll help you maintain and increase your mental acuity. Brisk walking , swimming and dancing are all excellent activities.
We talk about the brain and the body are two separate entities. They are not. We know that the body needs exercise. Then why do we not stop to recognize that exercise is additionally important to development and learning for the brain? Exercise diminishes the risks for dementia, it reduces stress, it will enhance problem solving skills and it promotes skills necessary for attention. Research additionally demonstrates that people who exercise out will out-perform couch potatoes every time. When exercise ceases, brain function is lessened.
Years ago we were more active physically. We have now become sedimentary. With technological improvements we sit more than ever.
What happens when we move? Why is cognition increased? The answer is really quite obvious. Exercise improves the oxygen flow to all parts of the body, including the brain, which directly leads to mental alertness. The molecular structure of the brain is impacted in a positive manner. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercises, even just two times per week increases the brains productivity much more effectively than weight lifting exercises alone. The brain additionally requires glucose.
It takes as much oxygen from food as possible. We need extra blood vessels to get more oxygen. The way that we get more blood vessels is to increase exercise. Exercise is like Miracle Grow for the brain. There are so many benefits from exercise. It reduces the risk factors for diabetes, it supports memory formation, it strengthens muscles and bones, it helps to control appetite, it aides to improve fluid intelligence, it reduces heart disease and it helps to minimize depression. As always before beginning any exercise regimen see your doctor. The brain craves exercise. So, what are you waiting for?
2. Eliminate stress and seek help for depression
Anything that causes you major stress, like anger or anxiety, will in time begin to eat away at the parts of your brain that are responsible for memory. Amongst the most brain-damaging stressors is depression, which is actually often misdiagnosed a a memory problem since one of its primary symptoms is the inability to concentrate. If you can’t concentrate, then you might feel like you are constantly forgetting things. Depression increases the levels of cortisol in your bloodstream, which elevates the cortisol levels in the brain. Doctors have found that increased cortisol diminishes certain areas of the brain, especially the hippocampus, which is where short-term memories are stored. Prolonged depression can thus destroy your brain’s ability to remember anything new. Seek professional help to combat your depression – your brain will thank you.
3. Get a good night’s sleep and take naps
Getting a consistent 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night will increase your memory. During sleep, the brain firms up memories of recently acquired information and getting enough sleep will help you get through the full spectrum of nocturnal cycles that are essential to optimal brain and body functioning during the waking hours. Taking a nap throughout the day, especially after learning something new, can also help you to retain those memories as well as recharge your brain and keep it sharper longer.
4. Listen to music
Research shows that certain types of music are very helpful in recalling memories. Information that is learned while listening to a particular song or collection can often be recalled by thinking of the song or “playing” it mentally. Songs and music can serve as cues for pulling up particular memories.
5. Feed your brain
50 to 60 percent of the brain’s overall weight is pure fat, which is used to insulate its billions of nerve cells. The better insulated a cell is, the faster it can send messages and the quicker you will be thinking. This is precisely why parents are advised to feed their young children whole milk and to restrict dieting – their brains’ need fat to grow and work properly. Skimping on fats can be devastating even to the adult brain. Thus, eating foods that contain a healthy mix of fats is vital for long-term memory. Some excellent food choices include fish (especially anchovies, mackerel and wild salmon) and dark leafy green vegetables. Deep-fried foods obviously contain fat, but their lack of nutritional value is going to help your brain or your body, so think healthy foods and fats.
6. Visual concepts
In order to remember things, many people need to visualize the information they are studying. Pay attention to photographers, charts and other graphics that might appear in your textbook, or if you’re not studying a book, try to pull up a mental image of what it is you are trying to remember. It might also help to draw your own charts or figures, or utilize colors and highlighters to group related ideas in your notes.
7. Do crossword puzzles, read, or play cards
Studies have shown that doing either of these activities on a daily basis not only keep your brain active, but also help to delay memory loss, especially in those who develop dementia. So pick up the daily newspaper and work on that crossword puzzle, read a book, or enjoy a game of solitaire.
After powering up your brain, it is now time to meditate.
Vipassana meditation: The process
Witnessing the mind through Vipassana Meditation with the accent on witnessing, is arguably the most essential spiritual practice out there. It involves consciousness becoming aware of the mind (and in later stages of itself), hence creating a clear and necessary ‘space’ between the two. After sufficient practice you will quickly realize the distinction between yourself and the mind.
It all begins with you realizing: “Hey, the mind is over there while I am here observing it!” When you get more used to this form of witnessing the mind, you will not even have that thought-form, that interpretation, anymore.
You will just be aware, present, conscious; either witnessing the mind without labelling what you observe or withdrawing awareness and residing in your own stillness. This is the essence of Vipassana Meditation and it will make you eventually transcend the mind.
When Vipassana Meditation (also known in a similar form as Mindfulness) becomes a part of your daily routine and activity, or rather; a habit to step out of your conditioned system and observe your daily activity, you will raise your level of consciousness and every area of your life will benefit from this.
The higher your level of consciousness, the more bliss you will see and experience in every moment, in every experience and in every thing. The greatest quality of Vipassana is that it remains essentially the same exercise throughout the entire process of beginner to spiritually enlightened one. The technique remains the same, but the quality of consciousness will grow.
Once you become more advanced in spiritual development you will lose interest in many of the beginning exercises, but witnessing the mind, Vipassana Meditation, remains most essential and will eventually become a way of life.
Depending on your level of understanding, I would advice beginners to start witnessing the mind when taking a time-out to meditate. It can make things easier. At first meditation is something you do from a few minutes to an hour, only to return to everyday life after the meditation is finished.
After some practice you will come to understand how meditation is actually something that you can and will do at any time in life; it is a way of living, a state of being. Meditation will blend in with everything you do, emerging into every moment.
At that point the practice becomes a way of life and you will not be observing the mind its activity that much anymore, because all mental changes/activities will cease in your immediate presence; in your instant conscious beingness. The experience will only deepen in the sense of consciousness becoming more aware of itself, rather than of the mind.
This meditation, called Vipassana Meditation, is basically all you need to become spiritually enlightened. It is my opinion that all the rest of the exercises are merely designed for complementary purposes.
Vipassana Meditation, or: Witnessing the mind, is a simple yet challenging exercise. Especially in the beginning phases of the learning curve, Vipassana can be quite a challenge. While the principle is not difficult to understand or to apply, the challenge lies in maintaining the state of awareness and alertness as opposed to slipping back in identifying with the arising thought-forms.
So when practicing Vipassana, you either choose to take the time to meditate with all the rituals that you may be used to that make you feel like you are going to meditate, or you will apply this practice of witnessing at any time, which is the purpose, eventually:
1: Firstly, you will try to hear your thoughts: Hear the words that are formed in your mind continuously. Become aware of the continuous repetition, or stream of thoughts. Can you hear the words forming in your mind? If so, you were just a witness to the most noticeable and gross expressions of the mind.
2: Secondly, you try to become a witness to all the images and visualizations that occupy your mind field. Do not let these thought-forms drag you down into being unconscious of them; do not get involved in their contents; do not dwell on them as in day-dreaming; just remain the witness: unattached; non-judgemental; purely observing.
3: Thirdly, you become aware of any emotional thought-forms that arises in the body as a result of your ordinary thought-forms, if there are any. In daily life, as soon as an emotion arises, you should try to distance yourself from the emotion and observe it. Don’t let the emotion live you, only witness it without judgement.
At first this will be the greatest challenge because many thought-forms will arise in the mind and you will get lost in their contents. Remaining in this unattached state of awareness, of Vipassana meditation, is the trickiest part.
You should only be a witness, not a judge of what comes to mind
As soon as you judge what you witness, a thought-form is dragging you down. Only look at the thought-forms as if they are individual clouds passing by. Just look at them as they pass. This is what Witnessing the Mind and Vipassana meditation is all about.
Practice witnessing the mind its process on a daily basis; not only in meditation but in active life as well. Let this practice become a dynamic process. Be aware of what goes on in the mind when you are doing your daily things: when you are talking to people; when you are worrying about some future-event or regretting some past-event, etc.
That way, your regular meditation will become Mindfulness Meditation; Vipassana Meditation. You will become more conscious of what goes on in your mind whenever you choose to listen and be conscious.
When you are getting the hang of this, try to realize the fundamental difference between you, the observer and the things that are observed by you. Become not only aware of the mental activity, but also of the one that is witnessing the mind’s activities. Let consciousness become conscious of itself more and more.
What happens then is that the mind will quiet down as you reside purely in your true-self
Once you are capable of getting some tastes of this mindless state of consciousness, you can drop all meditation techniques and dedicate yourself to the No-Mind Meditation.
All meditation techniques are meant to bring you to this point of experiencing Consciousness itself until you realize that that is all there is.
When you dedicate yourself to this practice intensely and with an honest willingness to observe, you will see tremendous transformation on many levels of your being.
In my experience, Vipassana Meditation and eventually the No-Mind Meditation, are the most important and dynamically-applicable exercises out there. It includes in itself all other exercises. It is our one-way-ticket to enlightenment.