How to boost brain performance (last of 2 parts)

brain in hand

(continued from last week)

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Now that I’ve had a break and managed to spare some time to write, here are some of the other tips from Dr. Richard Restak.

On Cognitive Performance

  • Improve your forward digit span.

Forward digit span is a measure of the amount of discrete bits of information you can hold for a given time.

Many years ago, my digit span was tested when I applied for work. It went like this: The test proctor read a string of numbers and I was asked to write the digits down on a piece of paper after the proctor finished reciting the numbers. The proctor recited the numbers at 1 second intervals.

It was easy at first. Two digits, three digits, four digits were a breeze. But when it reached seven digits, I began to squirm in my seat, and it was not because of constipation. I couldn’t remember when I eventually made a mistake. All I know is that my brain burned a lot of calories.

Restak said this challenging exercise can increase brain performance, specifically, attention, concentration, sequencing, number facility and auditory and visual short-term memory.

He suggested a website for this: It contains exercises you can play online to improve your visual and auditory forward digit span as well as general memory.

  • Improve backward digit span.

This is self-explanatory. Instead of reciting the digits forward, you recite it backwards. It’s much more difficult than the forward digit span exercise.

This exercise develops attention and working memory, which is the ability to manipulate or hold information for later retrieval, or when focusing on other things. You can also use the website I mentioned.

  • Cultivate the art of remembering.

There are techniques to memorize numbers, words and other information. The loci method, peg words and converting numbers into letters are just a few. I will not elaborate on them here since there are too many. Besides, I haven’t mastered them.

I’ll just give you the two websites that Restak mentioned: and The techniques are all there.

  • Develop working memory.

Restak suggested several ways to do this. One exercise involves semantic (category) fluency.

In one minute, name as many animals as you can. After that, shift to vegetables, fruits, authors, singers… the categories are almost inexhaustible. If you want to repeat a category, you can narrow it down further. For example, animals in the farm or animals in Africa or wherever.

Another exercise involves lexical (letter) fluency. In one minute, recite distinct words beginning with the letter A. Variations such as allow, allowed, allowing are not acceptable. You can try out all the other letters.

Restak said 20 to 30 should be the target for the two exercises. Just like with the other exercises, you can make your own variations.

There is also an exercise involving designs. It develops the right hemisphere of the brain. In four minutes, draw as many distinct abstract and original designs as you can. They must not be nameable. Triangles, squares, circles are not allowed. This is a test of design fluency.

Here are some examples. Please don’t criticize. I drew them.


  • Do reminiscence exercises.

What can you remember about the year 1986? If you were already born that year, you can probably come up with something. But how many details can you remember? Where were you at that time? What were the significant events in your life that year? Who was the winner of the Miss Universe pageant? What was the greatest scientific discovery that year?

This exercise can be enjoyable. And it can help you prepare for your high school or college reunion, and spare you from embarrassment.

  • Expand your vocabulary.

One thing that we can expand continuously is our vocabulary. Restak said learning new words enhances our understanding of the world. It exercises our working memory and long-term memory.

Learning a new word everyday is easy, especially now that you can simply subscribe to a mailing list so that you can have a new word to learn everyday in your inbox.

Restak suggested for this.

  • Play video games.

You may say this is beneath you, that you are not a gamer, that you’re too old for video games. However, Restak said gamers actually fare better in tests of attention, reaction time, processing speed, etc.

He does have some caveats. He suggests a limit of two to three hours per week of playing to avoid addiction. He forbids violent games such as Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto and Take-Two.

And as for so-called brain gyms, he said most of them get really boring after some time, even if they do have some effects. For him, enjoyable and stimulating video games are better.

  • Develop a magnificent obsession.

Obsessive character traits can be good for us, according to Restak. It can engage our minds and help us improve our moods. He advises us to take up something that is interesting but preferably something new to us. By developing this magnificent obsession and taking a year to learn everything we can about the subject, we expand our intellectual horizons.

The object of obsession need not be an intellectual pursuit though. It could be golf or carpentry or knitting.

  • Get into the habit of deliberate practice.

K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, has made a career out of studying superior performance. After studying people engaged in physically-demanding sports such as running to intellectual pursuits such as chess and memorizing numbers, Ericsson thinks he has pinned down the secret of excellence.

Restak managed to get some beautiful quotes from him.

Here’s one: “For the superior performer in any field the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again, but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That’s why they don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time. Intense solitary deliberate practice is the hallmark of the superior achiever in every competitive field that I have studied over my forty-year career.”

For me, the operative phrase here is “intense solitary deliberate practice.”

Restak made his own conclusion: “In practical terms, research confirms that exceptional performers aren’t endowed with ‘superior’ brains. Rather, the brain, thanks to its plasticity, can be modified by deliberate practice and the use of innovative strategies. That combination will enable you to achieve high levels of performance in the area of your choice – if you are willing to put in the effort required to achieve mastery.”

The italics are Restak’s.

I finished the book with a happy thought: There’s hope for all of us.



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