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Developing your brain and improving performance
April 10, 2014 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I recently learned that the brain starts out with a lot of fluid intelligence (the ability to acquire new skills and knowledge) which decreases as time goes on. I'm 21, and it has reduced a bit already—but it's never too late to start. How can I take the most advantage of this and build the right foundation for my brain while I'm still young?

Exercise? Those scientifically-dubious brain games? Solving difficult problems? Learning difficult math or a specific subject? Reading philosophical texts?

I think this is a crucial question, since brain function is so fundamental, so making a change at this fundamental level might bring about huge resulting changes.
posted by markbao to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Googleable term for this is neuroplasticity. I read The Brain that Changes Itself (others suggest Stroke of Insight) which gave me at least some of an understanding of some of the things we know scientifically and it's worth reading if you like that type of thing. Didn't give you specific tasks to do but gives you a way to conceptualize the issue since a lot of it has to do with what your brain already finds easy/difficult. The Wikipedia entry for Lumosity (one of the more popular brain games, article is not just marketing blather) has links to some of the scientific studies which can also help you outline what you think might work best for you
posted by jessamyn at 3:58 PM on April 10 [4 favorites]


Benefits you gain will have less to do with boosting raw cognitive performance and more with learning important shit. The 'boost' due to neuroplasticity is not massive, even if it is established.

I think lumosity is a gimmick. Just because there is A signal, doesn't mean it's a strong signal (e.g. walking 150 meters extra every day has a clear signal of being marginally better for health, but in actuality the magnitude is negligible)

It is also probably true that motivation is the strongest factor for those of us not competing to truly be the best in a subject. For example, my math skills (raw math skills) are very unimpressive when compared to others... But I work on math every day after work 1 part out of it helping me with my work and 3 parts I enjoy being a more capable and intelligent person.

Slowlllyyy I am learning more advanced math, which is really cool! I do the same thing with programming.

I'd say math and coding are the rawest form of applied logic. But if you study them, don't study them to make your brain marginally 'stronger.' Study them because you realize those are skills that can help with your career, education, management skills, etc (or at least realize that is going to be where the true benefits are, rather than in some minor ability to think a tiny bit harder at some point).
posted by jjmoney at 4:32 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


Stroke of Insight is very good. I've read it a couple of times, and while it does touch on the concept of neuroplasticity, there's not very much in there about it. It's mainly about recovering from a stroke. Here's the TED talk about it.

The Brain That Changes Itself has a lot more detail. The book does use language like "perversions" when referring to paraphilias, though. There's something of a Freudian bent to it.

One of the better books I've read on the subject is this one. It's a little repetitive, but it describes in detail studies that were perform on an ape (I forget which species) and explains in detail exactly what was going on in the brain. Another is The Neurotourist. Once you get past the author's annoying blather, it'll lead you down some interesting research paths.

The best thing I think you can do for your brain is give it new information. It doesn't matter, as long as your brain hasn't seen it before. So, learning trigonometry will help, but just learning trigonometry won't. When you've learned it, your brain has figured out how to solve that particular puzzle. You need to challenge it in a new way. Doing lots of sudoku will help a little, but you'll ultimately only end up good at sudoku. Learning new tricks, from a variety of formats, will likely help more. So, bake a cake, do some handstands, learn a new language, differentiate between the smells of unfamiliar spices, train someone else to be capable in cake baking, learn a new word every day and then actually use it in a sentence when talking to someone else, speak in a different accent all day, taste new and unfamiliar foods and then write a review about what they tasted like, etc. Even taking a different route home can wake your brain up a little. Use all of the varied parts of your brain to their fullest extent. There's not one thing that will keep your brain healthy. It's as much a muscle as any other part of your body. The only difference is, it doesn't only expand in one direction.

With regards to learning new things, maybe try using different ways of learning. I knew someone who couldn't follow a written recipe to save his life, but who could follow a Youtube video for making banana bread with ease. Still other people learn best when someone physically shows them what to do. Figure out what your dominant learning style is, and then use a different one. It'll be tricky, but that's kind of the point. Your brain has a comfort zone, and it's up to you to challenge it. If your brain shies away from doing something, like learning to dance, make a point of learning to do it. That will give you the greatest challenge, but also the greatest chance for growth.
posted by Solomon at 4:34 PM on April 10 [7 favorites]


More ramblings that have just occurred to me:

"Neurons that fire together, wire together". It's a neurophysicist saying that basically means that different bits of the brain that are used simultaneously, will eventually form close connections to one another. Consider walking. Your brain has to handle sensory input from your ears for balance, your leg muscles so you actually move, your eyes so you can see where you're going, another part so you can plot a route around obstacles, etc. It's no wonder that small children find it so difficult to learn. When an adult is walking, though, they often don't think about it at all. They're just moving about, avoiding other people, etc, without having to think about it. Their brains have gotten really good at doing this thing that at first was incredibly difficult. Put someone on a moving floor, like on a boat at sea, and suddenly it becomes much more difficult again. Having to learn the new skill of walking around while the boat is rocking means that new neuronal connections have to be formed.

You might want to spend some time looking at how many different parts of the brain there actually are. Did you know that there are actually two separate parts of the brain for language? One enables you to understand language, while the other enables you to speak it. In fact, if one part of the brain is damaged, the functions can be taken over by another part of the brain.

V.S. Ramachandran is another author whose work is worth looking into. He cured someone of a phnatom limb with nothing more than a box and a mirror.
posted by Solomon at 5:01 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


Exercise?

Get enough sleep. Avoid chronic stress. Eat well.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:42 PM on April 10


What sebastianbailard said, and also, don't entertain the belief that you can't learn something. Assume that if you are really hell-bent on learning something, you can make progress at it.

At your age, you will never be a ballerina, but if you put your mind to it you could learn to dance quite a bit better than you expect.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 AM on April 11


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