Unlike a bicep or a quadricep, we can’t see or feel when our brain is turning into mush through either disuse or misuse. Instead, any atrophy will instead make itself known when we’re struggling to remember a very common word, getting hopelessly lost in a part of town we’re intimately familiar with, or being driven to tears trying to figure out how to set up a personal hotspot. That last one happened to me about 90 minutes ago.
While the brain isn’t literally a muscle, its function can be positively and negatively affected by the behaviors we engage in—and ones that we don’t—each and every day. Below is a litany of habits you can pick up that could help you stop fucking with your grey matter and help enhance its function instead. If you change your ways, your chances of regaining your sparkle are good.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, sleep is extremely important to all aspects of our health. Unfortunately, we’re getting less of it than ever. As recently as the mid-1900s, people slept around nine hours per night. In 1970, that number had fallen to around 7.5 hours per night. According to the CDC, over a third of American adults getting less than seven hours shut-eye per night. “Sleep is essential for optimal neuropsychological ability,” says Virginia-based neurologist and sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter. He elaborates on this in his book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. “From interpreting nonverbal cues and emotional content to managing concentration and organizing information in our minds, sleep is vital—and restricted sleep can dramatically impact cognitive performance.”
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Another sleep-related thing to consider: naps are not just for cranky toddlers. A small study from 2010 looked at the academic performance of two groups of young adults: nappers and non-nappers. In the experiment, every participant completed a rigorous learning task. After the first task, one group took a 90-minute nap while the other stayed awake until a second task was administered hours later. The participants who napped in between tasks did significantly better on the second task and also showed signs of improvement and learning.
The non-nappers, on the other hand, became worse at learning and their ability to retain information decreased. “Napping helps raise levels of alertness and can help with memory," says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus. He explains that a 20 to 25 minute cat nap can help you to stay sharp when you just didn’t get enough sleep the night before, but that getting more nighttime sleep is the best solution.
Caffeinate (in moderation)
Many of us are well acquainted with coffee’s ability to get us moving in the morning, but it can also help you process things more quickly. Winter says that caffeine's role as a performance-enhancing drug has long been known. “It helps with concentration, focus, and memory processing as well as recall,” he says. According to a study from 2012, 200 mg of caffeine (about as much as you’d find in a 12-ounce cup of coffee) can improve a person's verbal processing speed. By providing a group of adults a 200 mg caffeine pill in the morning and then asking them to complete word-recognition tasks, researchers discovered improved speed and accuracy compared to when they completed these tasks without caffeine.
Put the bottle down once in a while
In a study in the British Medical Journal, researchers looked at the impact of moderate alcohol consumption on the brain through the cognitive ability of more than 500 adults over 30 years. It was demonstrated that people who drank between 15 and 20 standard drinks per week were three times more likely to suffer from hippocampal atrophy—damage to the area of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation.
Overall, drinking doesn't "kill your brain cells," but drinking too much too often can damage the part of your brain responsible for remembering things, which is almost as bleak. That actually leads me to my next suggestion.
Give Google a break
If you’re older than say, 35, you can probably remember a time when you had at least a dozen phone numbers committed to memory. You may also recall certain mental tricks you may have employed to help you do so, such as associating certain number sequences with the location of their keys on the dial pad, or “clustering” the numbers into groups to help you retain them. Guess what? That’s called using your brain.
In today’s connected world, we’re storing information basically everywhere else. In a 2011 paper entitled Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, college students were shown to recall less information when they knew they could search for it instead. Winter says that stress can be helpful in memory formation. Knowing that you have access to all the information you’ll need “might reduce memory capacity,” he says.
Have more sex
Sometimes, after a long, hard day, the thought of energetic humping can seem so daunting that you and your partner agree to a half-assed snuggle instead. But if you're not making sex a priority at all, it might be worth checking out some of the research that touts the benefits it might have on our brain function.
In a small 2017 study published in the Journals of Gerontology, researchers asked a group of older adults questions about their sex lives and then had them to take a standardized test. This revealed a link between sex frequency and intelligence: People who claimed to engage in sexual activity weekly wound up having higher test scores than people who did not. It’s important to note that we can’t be certain of the direction of this effect—people who feel sharper might be more likely to be having more sex.
Still, other recent research has demonstrated a strong link between getting wild and getting smart. In 2017, another study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at the effect of sex on the cognitive abilities of 78 women aged between 18 and 29. Controlled for other factors such as menstrual phase and relationship length, researchers found that women who had sex more often had better recall of abstract words on a memory test. In fact, the bulk of research done on the benefits of sex on the brain revolves around memory. People who are getting some on a regular basis may be less depressed and more emotionally satisfied too, Winter says. This, he adds, could line up with sex being cognitively beneficial and helpful with focus.
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