Grow Your Brain for Greater Success
The following content was delivered as a presentation entitled, “Let’s Get Bigger Brains,” to a group of Toastmasters in 2010.
Most of us desire success, however we personally define it. Once we achieve a level of success, maintaining it is not something that we can take for granted. We cannot simply rest on our laurels, or maintain the status quo. What made us successful in the past doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the future.
Our Nature Can Work Against Us
By nature, we crave comfort and an easy life, and we avoid change. This may keep us in the status quo for awhile, but as change happens, we may lose our status, cling to how things used to be and become jaded critics. This can become a downward spiral. I’m sure you all know a few naysayers or curmudgeons.
From the brain’s point of view, this mental laziness and negative attitude make us less able to adapt to change and process new information. With the world changing rapidly around us, it is imperative that we bring these mental habits to light and learn new ways to work with normal but unhelpful tendencies.
The question then is: How can we improve our mental habits to help build and maintain our successes? The answer: Get a bigger brain! (Our head won’t get visibly bigger, but the cortex—the outer wrinkled covering of the brain—can get thicker and denser.)
The Field of Neuroscience Provides the Answers
Luckily for us, the field of neuroscience has been growing and can provide solutions. The most promising discovery, from the late ’90s, is that we can grow new brain cells (neurons), and we can form new connections between existing cells. This is called neuroplasticity. It’s good news for those of us who thought we killed too many brain cells in our youth!
The catch is that we have to “use it or lose it.” New cells grow, but if we don’t have enough brain activity, we won’t be able to capitalize on it. Knowing this, and understanding how to harness new cell growth, are the keys to a bigger brain.
Setting the Stage for New Cell Growth
To set the foundation for brain cell growth, we need to lead a relatively stress-free life. Stress inhibits cell growth and cognitive ability, and it even kills cells and causes brain shrinkage. Solutions for stress reduction include meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, good time management, delegation of tasks and avoiding or saying “no” to stress-inducing situations, people and jobs.
A nutritious diet, adequate sleep and exercise are also essential foundations for new cell growth. Increased blood flow to the brain through exercise helps support new neuron connections.
Once the foundation is in place, continuous learning is key. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, coined the phrase “growth mindset,” which is the idea that we can learn new skills and knowledge at any time in life, as opposed to having a fixed brain capacity that stays with us throughout our lives.
Research shows that the more education and skills a person acquires, the higher their income.
Brain cell growth thrives on variety, novelty and challenge. Listed here are examples of activities that will increase brain cell growth:
- Learn to play an instrument: Learning something that may be difficult at first is a good challenge for the brain. There is no rush to master the instrument—it is the ongoing process of learning that changes the brain.
- Learn a new language: Tapes, classes and immersive travel are great ways to learn a new language.
- Travel and explore: Adapt to new surroundings and learn about new cultures.
- Integrate what you learn: Write about what you are reading, watching and studying. If you’re learning new software skills, incorporate them into a new project. Teach someone else what you’ve just learned, or deliver a presentation on it.
- Cultivate stimulating social relationships: Spend time having fun and communicating with others, especially with people who enjoy thinking and learning.
- Verbal reviews: Tell a friend about something you read or watched, even if it’s a mindless film or TV show.
- Play games, learn new sports, dance or act.
- (2014 update) Play brain training apps, like Lumosity or Fit Brains!
By now, your brain should be a little bit bigger, because hopefully you’ve learned something new. Growing your brain requires effort, but you can make the process fun, interesting and social. I highly recommend that you get started now: Choose one of the ideas listed above that you are excited about, and start implementing it within the next couple of days. Turn it into a regular practice, and you’ll be on your way to creating a habit that can lead to greater success in life.