How to boost brain performance (part 1)

neurons

By Anthony O. Alcantara

“Citius, altius, fortius”

Swifter, higher, stronger. That’s the Latin-inspired Olympic motto. Though it refers to physical prowess, I believe it applies to mental ability, too.

We’re all thinking beings. We belong to a species of primates, with cute opposable thumbs, called Homo sapiens, which means “wise man” or “knowing man.”

And because of that, many of us would like to improve our mental ability. That’s also probably why my earlier post on “How to keep your brain fit” was one of the most-read posts.

So despite wanting to write about something else, I thought of giving you a second helping.

I recently came across this book by Richard Restak, M.D. entitled “Think Smart!” I believe the science is pretty well-backed up. Restak, a neuroscientist who has done a lot of research on the brain, thought of picking on the brains of other eminent scientists and colleagues specializing on different aspects of brain performance.

He asked them a simple question: “What are you doing to keep your brain functioning at its best?”

I was certainly interested in their answers, especially when sometimes after dialing a number on my office phone, I forget who I was calling. Embarrassing!

Anyway, before I forget what this post is all about, here are some excerpts from “Think Smart!”, a distillation of cutting-edge knowledge from some of the world’s leading scientists on brain performance.

Just like with the exercises and suggestions I listed in an earlier post, I have found some to be interesting and useful, while the others seemed pretty boring. I guess the key here is to choose the ones that will give you the most benefit and enjoyment.

Some of the exercises and suggestions here may overlap with the earlier list, but many here have a different twist and are more specific.

On Nutrition

  • Reduce dietary fat and empty calories.

High cholesterol levels and obesity can impair memory and general brain function. Fastfood should be cut to a minimum. Controlling your weight is necessary. It may not appeal to some of you, but if you’re serious about getting your brain up to speed, this is paramount.

  • Eat more fish.

Fish, especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can help improve memory and clarity of thinking. It can also reduce the likelihood of developing depression. Tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, sablefish and trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It can also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, too.

  • Use supplements judiciously.

Restak said there was a study that showed men who take more than one multivitamin a day increase their risk of prostate cancer by 32 percent. More is not better in this case. It’s a good thing that I take my multivitamins every other day, especially since not all of the vitamins are used up anyway. It’s still best to get your vitamins from fruits and vegetables.

  • Consider increasing daily caffeine intake.

Well, this is not for everyone obviously. Some people get arrhythmias or heartbeat irregularities. Check with your doctor first and experiment with the amount of caffeine you can handle. In any case, caffeine has been found to slow down memory impairment and improve overall cognitive performance.

On Cognitive Performance

  • Sharpen sense memory.

Since memory starts with the use of our senses, it is important to develop them first. Restak said director Lee Strasberg, founder of Actors Studio, has developed sense-memory exercises for actors that are perfect for developing anyone’s sense memory.

The first exercise involves an empty cup, which the student examines exhaustively using his sense of sight. Every ridge, every shape, every color, every blemish should be carefully noted. After every visual aspect of the cup has been exhausted, the student can now proceed to another one of the five senses. This is done at least 15 minutes everyday. Soon the student will be able to conjure up the exact image of the cup at will. You can come up with your own exercises involving other objects and in different situations. The idea is to sharpen all five senses.

  • Extend your peripersonal space.

Restak quoted science writer Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee in their book “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own” to illustrate what peripersonal space or PPS is:

“Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. Moreover this annexed personal space is not static. It is elastic. It morphs every time you put on or take off your clothes, wear skis or scuba gear, or wield any tool. When you eat with a knife or a fork, your peripersonal space grows to envelop them. Brain cells that normally represent space no farther out than your fingertips expand their fields of awareness along the length of each utensil, making them part of you.”

It reminds me of the concept of ma-ai in martial arts, or proper distancing or interval. It’s different when you’re empty-handed compared to when you’re wielding a sword or an arnis stick. Speed of movement also affects ma-ai.

Restak suggests this preliminary exercise. Stand straight with your eyes closed, extend your arms horizontally to your side and make sure that your hands are exactly at the level of your shoulders. Then make two fists, with your two hands of course, and stick out your forefingers. Slowly bring your two fingers, preferably along with your hands and arms, in front of you in an sweeping motion. Then when you feel that your fingers are just about to touch in front of you, open your eyes. See if they are at the same level. Chances are they are off by a few centimeters. Repeat until you get it right.

Another exercise is to sit on a chair, straighten one of your legs, close your eyes and, using your right hand like a gun with your forefinger jutting out, aim for your big toe. When you think you’ve got your big toe directly in front of the barrel of your “gun,” open your eyes. Repeat until you hit the mark.

This shows that we’re over-reliant on our sense of vision. Developing PPS is one way to counteract that.

So there you have it. These are the preliminary exercises and suggestions that will prepare us better for the other exercises. I’ll reserve that for my next post. I really wouldn’t want to bombard you with too much information. Besides, my concentration is faltering already.

(to be continued)

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