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The secret to boosting brain performance

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Weighing in at around 1.5kgs it really is the ultimate super computer, capable of outperforming anything that man has so far managed to create. Its capabilities are quite staggering.

What makes it so amazing is neuroplasticity – its ability to physically change to meet the demands of any new challenge. It is continuously reshaping to adapt our skills and behaviours to suit an almost infinite variety of different real and potential future circumstances. 

Fresh challenges bring about physical changes to your brain. The drivers of London’s famous black cabs spend years learning “The Knowledge”, a seemingly indigestible tangle of routes to commit to memory by anyone’s standards.

During this period of exhaustive wayfinding ingestion, the Hippocampi of these determined wannabe cabbies (the brain areas instrumental in making and retrieving memories) physically grow larger due to all of the extra connections required to retain all that information – only to return to their normal size after retirement. 

What this shows is that your brain not only adapts to take on new challenges, it physically restructures itself to meet them. 

The key to maximising the benefits of neuroplasticity throughout life – and consequently continually improving your abilities – is to practice new and existing skills regularly, intensively and to perpetually stretch yourself mentally i.e. keep it up!

New skills don’t come easy when first attempted but with a bit of dedication the early signs of improvements soon become apparent. Eventually, what once felt completely alien becomes as easy as a walk in the park. 

Why? Because your brain has invested sufficient resources in rewiring the pathways involved in executing that task. The key is to not lose faith when the early improvements start to taper off. Instead you must keep pressing on. By continuing to challenge your brain it will continue to invest resources in improving communication between brain areas involved in whatever skill you are practising.

This for most of us is easier said than done. As kids we were constantly confronted with having to try new things on a daily basis and so struggling with new challenges was a normal daily experience. 

As adults however, we are drawn by a natural instinct to seek comfort in behaviours that we know we are good at. Those however who do trust their brains to adapt to any regularly encountered challenge and embrace the opportunity to try new things will inevitably continue to expand and develop their abilities. This, in effect, is what is popularly known today as “brain training”.

Experiments investigating brain training have found that exercises that increase the capacity of working memory, (information we hold in mind for just long enough to perform a mental task effectively), can improve performance in a whole range of cognitive tasks. So much so, that if we manage to improve working memory it is likely that our IQ score will increase as a direct result.

Dr Jack Lewis & Adrian Webster are authors of Sort Your Brain Out, published by Capstone, 28th March 2014.

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