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11 steps to a better brain 

Here are 11 steps to a better brain. It doesn’t matter how brainy you are or how much education you’ve had — you can still improve and expand your mind.

Boosting your mental faculties doesn’t have to mean studying hard or becoming a reclusive bookworm.

There are lots of tricks, techniques and habits, as well as changes to your lifestyle, diet and behaviour that can help you flex your grey matter and get the best out of your brain cells. And here are 11 of them.

To make reading a little more simple, and so people can just read those section of interest, I have split these various steps into separate articles. Click on the relevant links to go through to another page.

1. See 11 steps to a better brain – smart drugs

2.  See 11 steps to a better brain – food

3. See 11 Steps to a better brain – music, and the Mozart effect

4. See 11 steps to a better brain – memory

5. See 11 steps to a better brain – sleep

6. See 11 steps to a better brain – the body

7. See 11 steps to a better brain – paying attention

8. Bionic brains

If training and tricks seem too much like hard work, some technological short cuts can boost brain function. Check out

9. Gainful employment

Put your mind to work in the right way and it could repay you with an impressive bonus.Until recently, a person’s IQ — a measure of all kinds of mental problem-solving abilities, including spatial skills, memory and verbal reasoning — was thought to be a fixed commodity largely determined by genetics.

But recent hints suggest that a very basic brain function called working memory might underlie our general intelligence, opening up the intriguing possibility that if you improve your working memory, you could boost your IQ too.

A team led by Torkel Klingberg in Stockholm, Sweden, has found signs that the neural systems that underlie working memory may grow in response to training.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, they measured the brain activity of adults before and after a working-memory training program, which involved tasks such as memorising the positions of a series of dots on a grid.

After five weeks of training, their brain activity had increased in the regions associated with this type of memory.

Perhaps more significantly, when the group studied children who had completed these types of mental workouts, they saw improvement in a range of cognitive abilities not related to the training, and a leap in IQ test scores of 8 per cent.

It’s early days yet, but Klingberg thinks working-memory training could be a key to unlocking brain power.

10. Nuns on the run

If you don’t want senility to interfere with your old age, perhaps you should seek some sisterly guidance. A convent in Minnesota might seem an unusual place for a pioneering brain-science experiment.

But a study of its 75 to 107-year-old inhabitants is revealing more about keeping the brain alive and healthy than perhaps any other to date.

The sisters’ miraculous longevity —the group boasts seven centenarians and many others well on their way — is surely in no small part attributable to their impeccable lifestyle.

They do not drink or smoke, they live quietly and communally, they are spiritual and calm and they eat healthily and in moderation.

How did these nuns cheat time? Snowdon’s study found several common denominators. The right amount of vitamin folate is one.

Verbal ability early in life is another, as are positive emotions early in life, which were revealed by Snowdon’s analysis of the personal auto-biographical essays each woman wrote in her 20s as she took her vows.

Activities, crosswords, knitting and exercising also helped to prevent senility, showing that the old adage “use it or lose it” is pertinent. And spirituality, or the positive attitude that comes from it, can’t be over-looked.

Obviously, you don’t have to become a nun to stay mentally agile. But this does point to everyone being able to keep their brain function even as they grow older.

As one of the sisters said, “Think no evil, do no evil, hear no evil, and you will never write a best-selling novel.”

11. Positive feedback

Thought control is easier than you might imagine. It sounds a bit New Age, but there is a mysterious method of thought control you can learn that seems to boost brain power.

No one quite knows how it works, and it is hard to describe exactly how to do it: it’s not relaxation or concentration as such, more a state of mind. It’s called neurofeedback. And it is slowly gaining scientific credibility.

Neurofeedback grew out of biofeedback therapy, popular in the 1960s and is having a resurgence among alternative therapies currently. It works by showing people a real-time measure of some seemingly automatic and uncontrollable aspect of their physiology — like their heart rate — and encouraging them to try and alter it.

Amazingly enough, many subjects found that they could change these things but mostly were unable to describe how they were able to do it. Scanners allow people to see and control the activity in specific parts of the brain.

A team at Stanford University in California showed that people could learn to control pain by watching the activity of their pain centres. Which is quite Buddhist and modern physics theory inasmuch as once we observe things they change.

Compiled by Mark O’Brien.

Originally published in New Scientist Magazine, Issue 250, 1 May 28, 2005 and in the Here & Now magazine, Byron Bay, 2005

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