We all have the same basic anatomy between our ears, so why are some people able to use the brain more effectively than others? Simply put, what separates the best of us from the rest of us?
While it was once generally accepted that we were born with a certain fixed cognitive capacity and we did the best we could with what we had, we now know differently. Neuroscientific research has discovered that the brain is quite plastic. The brain you were born with changes from your experiences throughout your life. In fact, brain cells shrink and die while new brain cells can be born. Genes lay out potential and vulnerabilities, but they do not dictate your thoughts, your feelings, or behaviors.
Since the 1990s, also known as “The Decade of the Brain,” we’ve discovered that we can actually increase our capacity to learn. Technological advances and a wealth of research now prove that creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving are hardwired into each of us. Some of us are better at nurturing brain function and master their minds.
With a basic understanding of how the brain works, and a few simple brain-based strategies, anyone can boost brain power. Here are seven simple ways to master your mind and unleash your inner genius!
1. Nurture your natural curiosity.
Curiosity is a state of mind and a way of living. The superminds of mankind - Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, and Newton - have all been described as having insatiable curiosity. Leonardo’s notebooks comprise over 7,000 pages of confounding questions illustrating his relentless quest to discover the “knowledge of all things.”
One way to exercise your natural curiosity is to shift away from trying to find the “right answer” and learn how to explore different questions. Asking more “what if” and “why” questions will not only nurture creativity and innovation, but also increase your problem-solving ability. Practice reframing questions to shift your perspective. For example, instead of trying to find the meaning of life, consider finding more ways to make your life meaningful. That feels different, doesn’t it?
If you are at all curious about the Holy Grail of Genius, you won't want to miss this fun story about Albert Einstein and the photographer who captured his curiosity!
2. Laugh and smile.
Laughter reduces stress, releases neurotransmitters in the brain, and is clinically proven to have a powerful and positive effect on physical, emotional and social health and wellbeing. Laughter also works as an effective distraction from things that cause stress and anger – emotions that impede our ability to learn.In fact, studiesshow that the simple act of smiling has been found to increase attention and the ability to see problems holistically.
In addition, humor and creativity are inextricably connected. Laughing and smiling create the conditions necessary for the brain to engage in divergent thinking which is essential for complex problem solving. Humor links otherwise unconnected areas of the brain which is the primary goal of whole-brain thinking. And if that isn’t enough, research also suggests that people who smile more may live longer!
3. Embrace mistakes.
A Google search on "fear of failure" will produce over 150 million hits. It's number 15 on the top 100 phobias list listed as atychiphobia. It's also one of the greatest barriers to learning and overall success. We tend to internalize mistakes as evidence that we aren’t smart. Intellectually, we know that mistakes are essential to the learning process, but no one wants to make them let alone embracethem or bring attention to them.
However, when you embrace mistakes (honest mistakes, not careless mistakes) as part of the learning process rather than examples of failures, the chemistry of your brain actually changes. Instead of releasing stress-related chemicals that impede learning, your brain will release the happy chemicals that promote learning. Rather than seeing each mistake as one step closer to failure, you’ll be able to process the mistake intellectually as productive learning and be more open to seeing a solution.
“If you are making mistakes, you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You are doing things you have never done before, and more importantly, you are doing something.”
- Neil Gaiman
4. Find your Flow Mode.
Have you ever been so focused on something that you felt like you were in the zone? Think back to the last time you were so engaged in a task that you got into a groove, lost track of time, and the rest of the world just faded away. Chances are good that you were in what psychologists call “flow state.” Flow state is a state of pure focus and concentration that enables you to do what you’re doing at the top of your game.
Alfie Kohn refers explored a similar concept called “exuberant discovery,” and now science backs up both theories. Brain maps of electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and neuro-imaging of neurotransmitters show us that different regions of the brain activate when we experience different emotions or operate within flow mode.
In other words, when you find joy in learning, your brain releases a nice shot of dopamine that gives the memory center a nice massage and releases acetylcholinem that increases both focus and attention span. It’s kind of like a spa day for the brain.
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”
- Albert Einstein
5. Use your whole brain.
Indisputably, Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientific minds in history. So what was it about his brain that enabled him to understand space, time, mass, and energy in a way that would change the world? In 2013, a team of scientists in China examined Einstein’s brain and discovered that he had a freakishly large corpus callosum. The largest nerve fiber bundle in the brain connecting the two hemispheres was thicker and larger than normal. Simply, Einstein’s brain was more connected than most. He was able to think, learn, and explore the world around him with his whole brain.
If you really want to tap into your inner genius, learn how to use your whole brain. Incorporating music, movement, colors, doodles, dialogue, and a change of scenery into mental tasks can stimulate different parts of your brain to increase creative thinking, expand your perspective and give you greater enlightenment.
6. Take out the trash.
We all know that sleep is important. But did you know that sleep significantly impacts brain function? Glial cells, or astrocytes, play an important role. Little was known about glial cells until the 1980’s when Dr. Marian Diamond discovered that Albert Einstein had more of them than the average person. Glia comes from the Greek word for glue, and it was assumed that they were just that, brain glue that connected the neurons. It is now known that these cells are essential for brain development and function but also in getting rid of dead brain cells that clutter those connections.
Glial cells have a full-time job, working during the day to facilitate neural connectivity and communication. As they do, they are also on the lookout for circuits that aren’t pulling their weight. When they see an unused connection, they mark it with a protein. At night, glial cells act as the brain’s housekeeping crew. They look for the circuits marked with proteins as well as neurotoxins and cells killed with cortisol. Their job is to sweep all of that debris away; however, they can only do that during sleep, when neural cells shrink to make the interstitial spaces larger thus giving the glial cells room to work and flush everything out.
When sleep is interrupted, the glial cells cannot do their job. The neurotoxins and dead cells clutter the brain, and the unused connections prevent new and stronger connections from growing, similar to neglecting a vegetable garden and letting the weeds take over, eventually choking out the flowers.
John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” Research confirms it. A study published in Nature found that people who were given a creative task to solve and then allowed to sleep on it were more successful than those who remained awake to solve it. Sleep allows your unconscious mind to restructure information, resulting in new and insightful responses.
7. Choose your words wisely.
We know that feeding our body nutritious food is important for our health, however words and images we allow to enter our minds are of equal, if not more, importance.
Our internal and external dialogue has a major impact on mood, motivation, and determination. Positive self-talk has the power to propel you to great heights. Negative self-talk can bring you down to the depths, where you feel like giving up. Likewise, when we hear positive words from others, we feel positive emotions contrasted with the negative emotions we feel when we hear negative words.
According to neuroscience research, hearing or speaking positive and optimistic words stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. The parietal lobe, responsible for perception of self and others, is also affected. A positive view of yourself will create a bias in seeing the best of others.
Conversely, one negative word can create a profound neurological effect by way of the amygdala releasing stress hormones that actually drive you to make another negative statement and yet another one. Negative thoughts result in you being more critical and suspicious of others. There is where the 3 to 1 positivity ratio becomes important. If you don’t experience at least 3 positive thoughts for every negative one, you’ll mental state will become increasingly more negative as you get trapped in what scientists call the “vicious cycle.” Studies have shown that people who can generate a 5 to 1 positivity ratio have healthier relationships, are more collaborative, and more successful professionally.
Want to learn more about how the brain works and how to make it work better? Check out my new book, Happier Hour with Einstein and the full-color companion Gratitude Journal.