Thursday, January 5, 2012

Great Ideas for Boosting Brain Power

I'm rather obsessed with helping other people think faster, be sharper, and perform better on all types of academic projects. I also believe that we can help ourselves be smarter. We can enjoy life more and be of more use to society if we specifically train our brains.

That's why I was thrilled to read a huge "Get Smarter" spread in Newsweek (January 9 and 16, 2012, double issue, on sale now).

Some of these tips are things I already do and already teach--such as The Pomodoro Technique, reading a wide variety of materials, exercising regularly, always eating yogurt (seriously!), meditating and developing personally meaningful memory retention strategies.

Other ideas were new to me, but I will certainly try them and urge any reader here to do the same. 

Here is a list of especially intriguing tools and tips for getting smarter:

1. We all know that the internet is a time suck, don't we? It's hard to disconnect sometimes, and the e-mail constantly trickles in. I either have to physically remove myself from online access, OR...I just read something great: There is special software (it's called Freedom--how apt!) that will block the internet so that you can concentrate.  Brilliant! Now, I don't have to jet off to the middle of nowhere. I can stay right here and still be productive.

2. I am always talking about making flashcards; I prefer them hand-wrtten, as it turns out that writing by hand uses more parts of the brain and thus, aids in retention of information. Still, when you are in a rush (go back later and hand-write a flashcard!), try SuperMemo. Write those facts down fast, before you forget them; SuperMemo will nudge you to review the information.

3. Train your brain. Word games, memorizing poetry, reading Shakespeare, watching the English Al Jazeera, learning a new language, knitting, and specifically working on memory drills or focusing, for a month or so, on learning a new task--it's all cognitive exercise.  It's all good for you and literally builds up your brain. The point is that we have to specifically push ourselves to learn new things. Don't give up if something doesn't come to you easily (for example, I really have no patience for knitting, but I know it would be good for me to do, so I haven't given up yet). Our brains can increase their synapses through training, and we can train ourselves to be smarter! Conversely, our brains will become weaker if we don't read and if we watch too much TV.

4. Follow your passion. Most of us realize that if we really don't care about a subject, we are going to have a hard time remembering much about it. But can passion, interest and attention be developed? I think so; you just need to pay attention to connections. See what interests you. Follow that interest to the next thing that intrigues. Keep going. Keep reading (example: reading about Russia reminds a reader of the Ballet Russes; then she reads about Coco Chanel; then, she is on to Bauhaus architecture--always nudged along by interesting tangents in her original reading). 

5. Take free courses at iTunes U.  I did not even know such a wonder existed, though I have long been a fan of the Great Courses (this is a catalog; they sell DVDs of profs teaching fascinating courses).

6. Read the Great Books. It's a personal goal. I've done it. You could be able to say that you've done it, too. Read the entire Bible (which I've also done). Read Ulysses. Do something big and inspiring. Let yourself take as long as you need to; just don't give up!

7. Rest. It is by daydreaming, taking a break, zoning out and going for a walk that we can best spark creativity. I personally find that carving out a break time (I walk) always gives me new ideas, especially when I am working on a novel.

8. Think critically. Also, think analytically. Write book reviews. Write consumer reviews. Write anything! Start a blog. The more you write, the more you will realize you know. Writing is always great practice--not only for its own sake, but also for developing thinking skills.

For a full list of tips, see Newsweek's 31 Ways to Get Smarter--Faster. 

Happy brain training, and Happy New Year!


  1. I LOVE the Great Courses! Anything music-related done by Prof Robert Greenberg is just fantastic, in my opinion. I'm so grateful to have found that company. I'll have to try iTunes U!

  2. Let me know what you think. I have yet to try iTunes U, but I am looking forward to it.