1. Make what you eat work for your brain. The brain weighs only 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake. Put simply by Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By food, he means specifically real food, not “edible food-like substances”. How to distinguish these? According to Pollan, “don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. For example, Go-Gurt or Reeses Puffs cereal. Instead, real food includes things like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish and meat.
2. Any exercise you give your body can also help sharpen the function of your brain, plus improve mood and overall wellbeing. It can be extremely hard to get exercise during busy lives where most of our work and entertainment involves being stationary and staring at a screen. But research shows that any exercise at all, even just a little, is much better than none. So it’s worth carving out space in your schedule – even 10 minutes a day, or an hour a couple times a week. Whatever time you can find for exercise is better than none. Choose an activity you at least slightly enjoy so you’ll be more likely to stick to it.
3. Thrive on learning and new mental challenges. Explore new ideas. Be creative. Learn new skills. Travel. The point of having a brain is to learn, create, and to grow by adapting to challenging new circumstances. Some low-cost and low-pressure options? Read new books (ask your local librarian for recommendations!) or take free classes online at sites like Coursera, Khan Academy, and University of Reddit. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. The brain keeps developing, no matter your age, and it reflects what you do with it.
4. Don’t surrender your brain’s cognitive processing capacities to outside influences; not to media personalities, not to politicians, or even religious leaders hijack your brain’s critical thinking skills. Google facts and statistics you come across. Ask questions – lots of them. Analyze information from sources with differing views. Make your own decisions and mistakes. Learn from them.
5. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. Choose to be with others who are well-informed, independent thinkers, open to give and take discussions of issues that matter. Look for opposing opinions which challenge your beliefs. Developing new friendships can be difficult, especially for adults, so one helpful tactic is to join a group around an activity you enjoy. Meetup.com is a great online resource for facilitating that process.
6. Laugh. Often.
7. Relax. Stress and anxiety, externally induced or by your own thoughts, kills neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. Think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons. Give your brain time to wonder, contemplate, imagine, and be grateful. This increases serotonin, which reduces stress and enhances cognition.
By DC McGuire in collaboration with Alvaro Fernandez