Improving mental skills

How can I improve my mental skills?

Research and writing is an activity that demands the utmost of your brain, so it is worth investing in anything that will increase your intellectual capabilities. Happily, scientists have discovered a whole range of factors that affect IQ, concentration, memory, etc., and that you can to some degree control.

The most general observation is that the brain is a part of your body, requiring the same supply of blood, oxygen, nutrients, minerals, etc. as other organs. Therefore, anything that improves the functioning of your body will in general also improve the functioning of your brain. Moreover, brain activity is very energy intensive, using up to 25% of the calories, while making up only about 5% of the body. This is confirmed by fMRI, EEG and infrared scanning methods to observe brain activity, which show how whole sections of the brain "light up" with activation while you are performing various cognitive tasks, such as speaking, perceiving or problem-solving. Thus, the brain is in particular need of a constant energy supply, and anything that supports this can improve your intellectual capacity.

Here are some of the best methods to improve brain functioning:

  • physical exercise: increases blood circulation, not only to muscles but also to the brain. Experiments with rats have moreover shown that in the longer term exercise stimulates the growth of neurons, and the rats' ability to solve problems. Particularly recommended are not too intensive, aerobic exercises that do not demand specific concentration, such as walking, cycling or swimming. During these activities you often get your best ideas... 
  • healthy eating: provides a regular supply of calories (fuel to burn), antioxidants (to neutralize the free radicals produced by the "burning"), and essential fatty acids (to build the insulation of the neurons in the brain), with a special emphasis on Omega 3 (fish oil), which has been proven to combat a whole range of mental problem, such as ADHD, dyslexia, depression, ...
    Avoid foods with a high glycemic index (mostly sweets, bread and potatoes), which make the glucose and insulin levels in the blood increase and then decrease too quickly: they provide energy in the very short term, but produce fatigue in the middle term, and serious health problems in the long term. Better eat foods that digest more slowly (e.g. meat, fish, vegetables, nuts) and thus provide energy over an extended period. This is the simplest method to avoid the post-lunch dip.
  • nutritional supplements: can provide additional antioxidant protection, and facilitate bloodflow and energy production. Particularly recommended are: B-vitamins, Ginkgo, OPC (Pycnogenol), Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Alpha Lipoic acid, and Co-factor Q10. For a short-term boost, the caffeine found in coffee, tea or Guarana supplements is still most reliable; moderate use does not seem to be harmful.
  • minimizing stress: get regular, sufficiently long sleep, and avoid disturbances and interruptions, such as constantly incoming phone calls or email messages. Poor sleep, interruptions, and being busy with several things at the same time strongly reduce your ability to concentrate, and thus your ability to tackle difficult problems. A good method to reduce distractions and worries during your work is GTD
  • mental exercise: like the muscles, the brain becomes fitter by being used. Particularly useful are "flow" producing activities, such as certain types of computer games, where you get continuous feedback about how well you are doing, and where the level of difficulty gradually increases with your increasing skills. However, rather than spending your time with cross-word puzzles or games, you can exercise your brain more productively by engaging in intellectual discussions with colleagues. This is one of the best flow-producing ways to stimulate your thinking. 


More details: New Scientist article: 11 steps to a better brain