I like Jonathan Wai’s PsychologyToday.com article, Want to Get Smart?: Read something on this list. I’m confident that reading those books will expand your mind.
But what if you’re an impatient type like me? Reading even a couple of those books takes plenty time and brainpower we might not have. Could there be a faster, simpler, even if less potent way?
For a long time, I’ve noticed that I seem better able to solve problems when in the shower, after a cup of coffee, or while pacing rather than sitting. The common denominator: Each increases oxygenation to the brain.
That makes sense to me. It’s well established that people with poor circulation have reduced brain oxygenation, and in turn, reduced cognitive function. So, could increasing circulation in a person with normal circulation also improve brainpower?
It turns out there is research to support that hypothesis.
A University of Illinois study found that walking improves recall, which, of course, is core to solving difficult problems. The great problem solver can keep in mind lots of information and combine it in clever ways to address the problem. So the more you can remember, the more likely you are to develop smart solutions.
But does walking enhance not just plain recall but the creative thinking often required to solve difficult problems? A new Stanford study finds that it does, whether you’re inside and pacing or out walking in the fresh air. That study found that compared with people sitting, people who are walking produced twice as many creative responses.
Those studies don’t assert that oxygenation is causal but this review article does.
I don’t notice an increase in my problem-solving ability while running. Perhaps that’s because the rest of the body, for example, the legs, demand more oxygen during vigorous exercise so the brain gets little extra. So, maybe it’s only moderate exercise that boosts brain oxygenation and, in turn, cognitive function.
Shower. Many people claim to get their best ideas in the shower. That may not be just the result of increased oxygenation. This study argues that it may derive from being relaxed, which releases dopamine, a chemical viewed as key to creativity.
Whatever the cause, you might, when feasible, try saving a difficult problem for the shower.
For me at least, showering’s cognitive benefit seems to remain until my body temperature cools to normal. So that shower may give you a good chunk of IQ-boosted time.
Caffeine. A study by Duke researchers found that caffeine improves brain neuroconductivity but an earlier metaevaluation of caffeine’s effects on cognitive functioning yielded mixed results. I suspect the reason for that is that, like many drugs, caffeine’s effects vary across individuals. For example, while I find that coffee improves my thinking ability, others say it mainly makes them jittery. As I’ll suggest below, it may be wise to experiment a bit. For example, try a little coffee—The Mayo Clinic reports that for most people, it’s not dangerous and may even be salubrious. If you don’t like its effects, you can always drop it.
Chewing gum. This study finds that chewing gum for five minutes improved memory and speed of cognitive processing for 15 to 20 minutes. It ascribes the improvement to increased oxygenation. This study using fMRI, found actual changes in the brain during gum chewing.
An occasional piece of gum might be a brainpower booster worth keeping in your toolkit.
Close your eyes. A new study confirms that we remember better when we close our eyes. This latest study found that crime eyewitnesses who, when interviewed, close their eyes remember more of what they saw. That comports with my own experience. I find that I think better overall with my eyes closed. Perhaps that's just because I've blocked out other visual stimuli but my gut feeling tells me that there's more going on.
What to do
The anecdotal evidence and research I cite here are not dispositive but it would seem that the risk of trying one or more of these possible brain boosters, for most people, is small relative to the potential benefit. So might you want to experiment? For example, try tackling a hard problem while seated. When you’ve come up with the best solution you can, get up and pace the room for a few minutes, closing your eyes if possible. Did you come up with something better?
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.
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