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How to Train Your Brain

Conventional wisdom holds that we use 10 percent of our brain cells. Why not put the rest of your head into gear?

In our imaginations we fancy ourselves possessors of the wit and skill at repartee of a Robin Williams. Until we stand tongue-tied over cocktails. But it's not entirely a flight of fancy. It's entirely possible to think a little faster, a little smarter, a little wittier.

Think of it as cross-training your brain. It's not all that difficult, insists Joel Saltzman, author of Shake That Brain. Conventional wisdom holds that we use a mere 10 percent of our brain cells. Why not put the rest of your head into gear?

Saltzman offers some fun, simple techniques that will help flex your brain muscles.

  • Question your assumptions. Give conventional wisdom a nudge and re-think your environment. Consider an everyday product and list everything you know to be absolutely true about the product. Now go back and question every assumption. Tony Basche did just that when he stopped assuming locks had numbers and invented the Wordlock—he won $25,000 plus royalties in a Staples contest for his innovation.
  • Laugh. Watching Comedy Central may give your creative thinking a boost. Studies show that people are better at solving exercises designed to measure creative thinking immediately after exposure to comedy. Subjects said they felt more alert, active, interested and excited after watching comedy. But there's a caveat: Humor can be distracting and can decrease performance on non-creative tasks.
  • Limit TV. When you watch television, your brain goes into neutral. In one study, people watching television had increased alpha brain waves—their brains were in a passive state, as if they were just sitting in the dark. No wonder TV watching has been tied to low achievement.
  • Think beans for breakfast. Eating the right morning meal can have a big impact on brainpower. Kids who have fizzy drinks and sugary snacks for breakfast perform poorly on tests of memory and attention. You can get the biggest brain boost from—believe it or not—beans. High-protein beans up cognitive test scores by a wide margin.
  • Exercise. Physical activity is as much a workout for your brain as for your body. Exercise actually stimulates growth in brain cells. Schoolchildren who exercise three or four times a week get higher than average exam scores. Senior citizens who walk regularly perform better on memory tests than their sedentary peers. In fact, as they age, walkers show far less cognitive decline than that of non-walkers.
  • Master eloquence. Verbal charm is a powerful tool—it can get you that job you are seeking or that date you are after. Each day, prepare flashcards with a few new words and review them at least four times a day. Content yourself with fewer than eight new words per day; more than that could inhibit retention. At the end of the year, you will have increased your vocabulary by 2,000 words!
  • Get your nutrients. Unlike muscles, the brain cannot store energy; it must be constantly replenished with nutrients. Studies show that a diet rich in antioxidants and vitamins boosts memory and cognition. The best way to meet needs is by eating a variety of foods. In fact, healthy individuals who eat a balanced diet rarely need supplements. So load up on foods like nuts, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and fish.
  • Play with your brain. Learn a new language, master a new hobby or engage in friendly debate. Playing with your brain stimulates blood flow and strengthens the connections (synapses) between nerve cells in the brain. Read challenging books, do puzzles—and whatever you do, use your other hand to comb your hair or brush your teeth.