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The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Brains

Brain5Let’s review some good lifestyle options we can all fol­low to main­tain, and improve, our vibrant brains.

  • 1. Learn more about the “It” in “Use It or Lose It”. A basic under­stand­ing will serve you well to appre­ci­ate your brain’s beau­ty as a liv­ing and con­stant­ly-devel­op­ing dense for­est with bil­lions of neu­rons and synaps­es.
  • 2. Take care of your nutri­tion. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but con­sumesgood brain food over 20% of the oxy­gen and nutri­ents we intake? As a gen­er­al rule, you don’t need expen­sive ultra-sophis­ti­cat­ed nutri­tion­al sup­ple­ments, just make sure you don’t stuff your­self with the “bad stuff”.
  • 3. Remem­ber that the brain is part of the body. Things that exer­cise your body can also help sharp­en your brain: phys­i­cal exer­cise enhances neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, at any age!
  • 4. Prac­tice pos­i­tive, action-ori­ent­ed thoughts until they become your default mind­set and you look for­ward to cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful every new day. Too much stress and anxiety–either induced by exter­nal events or by your own thoughts–actually kills neu­rons and pre­vent the cre­ation of new ones. physical exercise for brain health
  • 5. Thrive on Learn­ing and Men­tal Chal­lenges. The point of hav­ing a brain is pre­cise­ly to learn and to adapt to chal­leng­ing new envi­ron­ments. Once new neu­rons appear in your brain, where they migrate and how long they sur­vive depends on how you use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do cross­word puz­zle num­ber 1,234,567”. It means, “chal­lenge your brain, and often, with nov­el activ­i­ties”.
  • 6. We are (as far as we know) the only self-direct­ed organ­isms in this plan­et. Aim high. Once you grad­u­ate from col­lege, keep learn­ing. Once you become too com­fort­able in one job, find a new one. The brain keeps devel­op­ing ALWAYS, reflect­ing what you do with it.
  • 7. Explore, trav­el. Adapt­ing to new loca­tions forces you to pay more atten­tion to your envi­ron­ment. Make new deci­sions, use your brain.
  • 8. Don’t Out­source Your Brain. Not to media per­son­al­i­ties, not to politi­cians, not to your smart neigh­bour… Make your own deci­sions, and mis­takes. That way, you are train­ing your brain, not your neighbour’s.
  • 9. Devel­op and main­tain stim­u­lat­ing friend­ships. We are social ani­mals, and need social inter­ac­tion. Which, by the way, is why ‘Baby Ein­stein’ or all those edu­ca­tion­al apps have been shown not to be the panacea for chil­dren devel­op­ment.
  • 10. Laugh. Often. Espe­cial­ly to cog­ni­tive­ly com­plex humor, full of twists and sur­pris­es. Bet­ter, try to become the next Jon Stew­art

Now, remem­ber that what counts is not read­ing this article–or any oth­er– but prac­tic­ing a bit every day until small steps snow­ball into unstop­pable, inter­nal­ized habits…“cells that fire togeth­er wire together”…so, start improv­ing one of these 10 habits today. Revis­it the habit above that real­ly grabbed your atten­tion, and make a deci­sion to try some­thing dif­fer­ent today and tomor­row.

SharpBrainsGuide_3D–> To learn more about what you can do, check out The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age.

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32 Responses

  1. Rasy says:

    Nice read, I agree with a lot of these points

  2. Eddie says:

    Addi­tion­al­ly, I find I can con­cen­trate far bet­ter after some exer­cise than after a big meal. Makes a big dif­fer­ence what the rest of the body is doing when you’re try­ing to think.

  3. Onasis says:

    My favorites are: prac­tice pos­i­tive, future-ori­ent­ed thoughts; thrive on Learn­ing and Men­tal Chal­lenges & Devel­op and main­tain stim­u­lat­ing friend­ships.
    Nice post.

  4. jv says:

    ah…the good life. so easy to do when you don’t have to wor­ry about war and pover­ty and “stuff”…

  5. wildan says:

    nice post.. thanks..

  6. Alvaro says:

    Rasy, Eddie, Ona­sis Jv, Wildan: thanks for your vis­it, and com­ments.

    Eddie: great obser­va­tion.

    Ona­sis: you picked 3 nice ones-hap­py that you enjoy them.

    JV: I have wor­ried a lot about hunger, pover­ty, injus­tice, and “stuff”. Now I try to focus on what I can DO to help solve or alle­vi­ate those prob­lems. Sim­ply wor­ry­ing doesn’t help any­one, nei­ther you nor them. I think what role I can play to be part of the solu­tion. And act. Start small, and let it grow.

  7. infophobic says:

    Regard­ing num­ber 2, I won­dered beyond fish and maybe gingko what might be deemed nutri­tion for the brain…

  8. Alvaro says:

    We answered a sim­i­lar ques­tion recent­ly:

    — Are there herbal and vit­a­min sup­ple­ments that will pro­tect my mem­o­ry?

    Key Points:

    - Omega-3 and omega-6 fat­ty acids found in cold-water fish may be help­ful to long term brain health.
    — Folic acid may also be help­ful to both cog­ni­tive func­tion and hear­ing.
    — Gink­go bilo­ba and DHEA do not appear to help your brain.
    — There is still more research to be done and nev­er dis­miss the place­bo effect!

    Also, we sum­ma­rized some of the find­ings regard­ing nutri­tion:

    - Eat a vari­ety of foods of dif­fer­ent col­ors with­out a lot of added ingre­di­ents or process­es
    — Plan your meals around your veg­eta­bles, and then add fruit, pro­tein, dairy, and/or grains
    — Add some cold-water fish to your diet (tuna, salmon, mack­er­el, hal­ibut, sar­dines, and her­ring) which con­tain omega-3 fat­ty acids
    — Learn what a por­tion-size is, so you don’t overeat
    — Try to eat more foods low on the Glycemic Index
    — If you can only do one thing, eat more veg­eta­bles, par­tic­u­lar­ly leafy green ones

    But, in short, we like the advice giv­en in the Dana Guide to Brain Health, that the gen­er­al rule here is that what is good for the body is also good for the brain, and to be wary of diets adver­tised as “brain food”.

  9. Events says:

    Yes, I can agree with much of this. Par­tic­u­lar­ly with the seg­ments ‘learn’, ‘explore,travel’ and ‘laugh often’.

  10. Jerry Ballmer says:

    This arti­cle is loaded with gram­mat­i­cal & fac­tu­al errors and typos yet I am sup­posed to take advice about intel­li­gence from it?

    the brain only weights 2% of body mass”

    - if gram­mar is your weak­ness, use the gram­mar check­er in ms word. this does not look good when lec­tur­ing the world on intel­li­gence.

    We are (as far as we know) the only self-direct­ed organ­isms in this plan­et.”

    - real­ly? are all the oth­er organ­isms direct­ed by some­thing oth­er than their own instincts?

    Stress and anx­i­ety, no mat­ter whether induced by exter­nal events or by your own thoughts, actu­al­ly kills neu­rons and pre­vent the cre­ation of new ones.”

    - do you have a cita­tion for this dubi­ous claim?

    try to become the next Jon Stew­art”

    - i thought we weren’t sup­posed to out­source our brains.

  11. Does doing arm work­outs in my chair while read­ing sci­ence blogs help my brain like dou­ble?

  12. I like the part about keep­ing the process of learn­ing going after col­lege. So many folks I know think their learn­ing is com­plete and con­sid­er read­ing news or watch­ing doc­u­men­taries the same as all the learn­ing they’ve done up to that point. Got­ta keep the grey mat­ter in top shape!

  13. Alvaro says:

    Levi: most like­ly… espe­cial­ly if you read the Neurophilosopher’s posts often.

    Jer­ry: you are not “sup­posed” to do any­thing. I have writ­ten this arti­cle. You have found it. If you enjoy it, be my guest. If you give me feed­back, I will improve. If you don’t like it, so be it. Note that I don’t use the word “intel­li­gence” but “habits”, because we are not talk­ing about being smart or not, but sim­ply about doing our best, learn­ing, adapt­ing.

    On the 3 spe­cif­ic points you raise: there are no fac­tu­al errors. May I sug­gest that you pay more atten­tion to the sub­stance than to one typo? (Your choice).

    1) Humans are not direct­ed (influ­enced, yes) by instincts. Our larg­er and bet­ter con­nect­ed frontal lobes allow us to make our own, mean­ing­ful, deci­sions and plan in life, beyond the influ­ence of our genes and cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment (what you can say our “instincts” are). You may enjoy this post on the role of the Frontal Lobes and Exec­u­tive Func­tions using a Bill Gates’ speech as exam­ple

    and also this post based on Richard Dawkins’ The Self­ish Gene

    2) Stress and anx­i­ety:

    BBC arti­cle titled Stress­ful Event Kills Brain Cells

    Our col­league Car­o­line wrote recent­ly about the sci­ence behind: Dr. Robert Sapol­sky, in an inter­view about his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, points out that humans unique­ly “can get stressed sim­ply with thought, turn­ing on the same stress response as does the zebra. But, the zebra releas­es the stress hor­mones through life-pre­serv­ing action, while we usu­al­ly just keep mud­dling along, get­ting more anx­ious by the moment.

    Pro­longed expo­sure to the adren­al steroid hor­mones like cor­ti­sol, released dur­ing the stress response, can dam­age the brain and block the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons in the hip­pocam­pus, which is the key play­er in encod­ing new mem­o­ries in your brain. Recent stud­ies have shown these neu­rons can be regen­er­at­ed with learn­ing and envi­ron­men­tal stim­u­la­tion, but while short-term stress may improve atten­tion and mem­o­ry, chron­ic stress leads indi­rect­ly to cell death and ham­pers our abil­i­ty to make changes and be cre­ative enough to even think of pos­si­ble changes to reduce the stress.
    Cita­tions at

    3- “become the next Jon Stew­art”: I am not say­ing you fol­low him. I am say­ing you try to become as suc­cess­ful -and fun­ny- as him. In your own unique way. Infor­ma­tion on laugh­ter and the brain at

    Per­son­al Devel­op­ment”: agreed! Learn­ing means acquir­ing new skills/ mindsets/ perspectives…which goes well beyond “being informed”.

  14. GMan says:

    Recent data pub­lished shows a mea­sur­able short term improvent (approx 6 hours worth after 1 hour) in cog­na­tive func­tion after a dose of flax seed or fish oil with Omega 3’s

  15. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo GMan:

    As men­tioned in a pre­vi­ous com­ment, we rec­om­mend Omega-3s. I’d like to learn more: can you include a ref­er­ence to that study? Thanks

  16. miriam says:

    hey it’s nice hon­est­ly it’s great bt just try to make it a lit­tle short­er to look more inter­est­ing to read

  17. Alvaro says:

    Short­est: don’t out­source your brain!

  18. I find drink­ing a lot of water and nap­ping dur­ing the day helps keeps my brain sharp, well as sharp as it’s going to get. Thanks for some great tips.

  19. Excel­lent infor­ma­tion. All very good advice on how to keep that brain sharp­ened. Sleep is also vital for improv­ing mem­o­ry and con­cen­tra­tion.

  20. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Steven and Philip, thanks for your addi­tions. Yes, sleep is very impor­tant, and well as keep­ing well hydrat­ed.

  21. Joe M Das says:

    Very smart arti­cle, full of infor­ma­tion on how to keep our mas­ter-organ healthy. Thank you.

  22. kim says:

    Have you heard of and test­ed Super­brain Yoga as a tool to fuel the brain? Great arti­cles have been pub­lished as well as a book that explains the sci­ence behind the exer­cise. Great way to keep the brain-body sys­tem fit!

  23. Alvaro says:

    Thank you Joe! yes, our “mas­ter-organ” deserves our atten­tion 🙂

    Kim: we haven’t. We have seen sci­en­tif­ic papers on the ben­e­fits of Yoga, but not of one spe­cif­ic “brand” like that. Could you give us the ref­er­e­ces to look into? Thanks

  24. Harry says:

    The stress claim looks to me sus­pi­cious­ly like an over-inter­pre­ta­tion of a sim­ply ani­mal study. The stress in the study is severe stress and was expo­sure of rats to aggres­sive rats. Death of some new­ly gen­er­at­ed cells result­ed (hmm, cell death is also relat­ed to learned -but now I’m over-extend­ing…). Per­haps we can agree that there’s a wide gap here between the ani­mal mod­el and every­day, com­plex human envi­ron­ments?

  25. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Har­ry, true, there is a gap. Now, neu­ro­sci­en­tists like Robert Sapol­sky or Fred Gage are not fea­tur­ing those dis­tinc­tions, but our sim­i­lar­i­ties. Our physiologies/ stress response are more sim­i­lar than one may assume.

    Fred Gage reminds us how “Chron­ic stress is believed to be the most impor­tant casu­al fac­tor in depres­sion aside from a genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion to the dis­or­der, and stress is known to restrict the num­ber of new­ly gen­er­at­ed neu­rons in the hip­pocam­pus.”

    Let me ask you: is depres­sion severe stress? what would you say are depres­sion rates (in humans)?

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