Though many of the brain's inner workings remain a mystery, scientists make new discoveries about this powerful organ almost weekly. Recent brain research has revealed ways to significantly improve memory and mental ability along with practical ways to prevent stroke and other brain diseases, including Alzheimer's.
Boost Performance With Stress
Scientists used to view stress as a detriment to mental performance. They advised people who were trying to improve learning and memory skills to minimize stress—with regular meditation, yoga, etc.
Finding: People learn more efficiently when they maintain an optimal level of stress. A principle called the Yerkes-Dodson Law has shown that a certain amount of stress (arousal) motivates people to try harder.
Balance is the key. People who experience very little stress—when taking a test or writing a paper, for example-tend to make errors of omission, such as forgetting to complete all the answers. People who experience too much stress make errors of commission, such as hitting the wrong computer keys.
What to do: If you find you're making more errors than usual in completing a task, you're probably experiencing too much stress. If you're bored, your stress levels are too low. For optimal mental performance, it is best to be in between these two extremes.
How to achieve stress balance: Too much stress is typically caused by one of two factors-having too few personal resources in a demanding situation or feeling that you have no options.
In the first case, increase your resources (practice, learn new skills, find helpers) or decrease the demands made on you change to a less demanding task, simplify the task in some way).
In the second case, talk with your associates or with a counselor or doctor to identify ways to gain more control over the situation.
Too little stress is caused by having too many resources in a situation that is not very demanding—you are overqualified for the task at hand. Address this by handicapping or otherwise limiting yourself.
Example: When my daughter was younger and I played tennis with her, I would hit to her singles court, while she hit to my doubles lanes—so the tennis became more interesting for me. Or you can increase the level of difficulty or complexity of what you are doing. For example, if you are bored writing something, try doing it without using the verb "to be."
Reduce Stroke Risk With Chocolate
People who consume moderate amounts of chocolate have better brain circulation and can reduce their risk of stroke. Cocoa beans—the main ingredient in chocolate—contain natural antioxidants called cocoa flavonoids. The flavonoids in chocolate are more powerful than vitamin C at limiting fatty deposits plaque) in arteries in the brain and heart. Buildups of plaque can impair mental performance and are the main cause of strokes.
Chemical compounds in chocolate also increase the levels of nitric oxide, a critical compound in the blood that relaxes the inner walls of blood vessels and promotes better blood flow and lower blood pressure. A study of 470 healthy men in the Netherlands found that those who ate the most cocoa beans—in the form of chocolate bars, pudding, hot cocoa, etc.—had lower blood pressure and half the risk of dying during the study period than those who ate the least.
What to do: Have one to two cups of cocoa or two small squares of a bar of chocolate daily. The darker the chocolate, the better. According to the ORAC scale-a measure of the antioxidant levels in foods-dark chocolate has double the amount of antioxidants of milk chocolate.
Fight Afternoon Fatigue
Nearly everyone gets sleepy after lunch. You can prevent this afternoon slump by eating protein first during lunch, then carbohydrates. The protein triggers an energy-promoting amino acid in the brain.
Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, fruits and vegetables, are good for you, but they contain an abundance of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which promotes relaxation and sleepiness. High-protein foods, such as meats and fish, contain L-tyrosine, which makes you more alert and less likely to feel tired. Your energy level after lunch will depend on which of these amino acids reaches your brain first.
What to do: Start your meal with a bite or two of protein. This allows the L-tyrosine to reach the brain before the L-tryptophan. But don't just eat protein-carbohydrates are your body's main source of fuel.
Get Happy With Omega-3s
In countries such as Norway and Japan, where people eat the most fish the best source of omega-3 fatty acids—the incidence of depression and suicide is much lower than in countries where people eat less. Omega-3s can help prevent and treat a variety of disorders, including bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Unfortunately, Americans get excess amounts of another fatty acid group, the omega-6s, found mainly in meats, cooking oils and soybeans. In the last century, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s has soared, increasing the risk of mood disorders, including depression.
What to do: Eat three to four fish servings weekly to get more omega-3s. (Avoid fish high in mercury, such as shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, as well as large tuna, such as albacore, yellowfin, bigeye and bluefin.) Or you can eat nuts if you prefer. Ten to 15 walnut halves or 15 to 20 pecan halves provide the recommended daily amount of omega-3s.
Rest—But Don’t Nap
The inventor Thomas Edison was famous for getting by on only two to four hours of sleep a night. When he was working on a particularly difficult problem, he would rest for five to 10 minutes. In the brief period between wakefulness and sleep, he often would experience an "A-ha!" moment and find the solution to his problem.
Scientists have found that when the brain goes into an "alpha state"—characterized by brain waves that are slower than the beta waves of wakefulness—people often develop insights, along with more focus and energy.
What to do: Shut your eyes and let your mind relax for five to 10 minutes. Resting in this fashion is not sleeping. People who slip into true sleep are groggy and less alert when they wake up.
Prevent Alzheimer’s With “Idea Density”
The important Nun Study funded by the National Institute of Aging—a 15-year study of 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, ages 75 to 106—revealed that cloistered nuns with brain changes characteristic of Alzheimer's disease didn't necessarily have cognitive impairments. Why do some people with these brain changes apparent during autopsies) develop Alzheimer's, while others do not?
When researchers analyzed short biographies that the nuns had written upon taking their Vows decades earlier, they found that those with a high "idea density" (many thoughts woven into a small number of words)—a marker of educational level and vocabulary-were less likely to develop Alzheimer's symptoms later in life, even when their brains showed signs of the disease.
The brain continues to form neurons and connections between neurons throughout life. People who are mentally active form the most connections and develop brain reserves that can slow the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.
What to do: Stay mentally engaged. Take classes at a university or community college.
Read challenging books and periodicals. Keep a diary or do crossword puzzles. Learn a new language.
Take Learning Breaks
You'll learn most efficiently when you focus on one thing at a time, then take a break before moving on to new material.
Example: Someone learning a new golf swing needs about six hours for the new neural pathways to become established. If he/she tries to learn a second swing within that six-hour window, the new information will crowd out the previous learning.
What to do: If you're in school, studying for a professional exam or just trying to learn a new skill, save the beginning of each day for major new learning. Use the rest of the day for practice and repetition.
Suppose you're learning a new language, such as Spanish. You might spend the morning memorizing verbs with "ir" endings. Practice this during the day or practice material learned on previous days, but don't introduce verbs with -er endings until the next day.