Plump Up Your Brain

How to increase your mental capacity

We used to believe we had this huge brain that we barely used. The search was for ways to expand the usage of our brain. In truth, we use what we have. The problem is that we have hundreds to thousands of new nerve cells “born” every day but we let most of them die. To increase our brain capacity, we need to actively nurture our new brain cells.

Newborn cells are like newborn babies. They have no previous experience and therefore no existing synaptic connections. This means they are fresh and unadulterated by bad habits and biased perceptions. They can quickly make new connections if given attention and “food.” Their food is discovery and learning.

BRAIN TIP #1: The best way to nurture new brain cells is to discover what you love to learn. And the more difficult the learning, the greater the food.

What do you love to read…history, leadership, fantasy, or even comedy? After you read, try to figure out how to apply what you learned, or determine the strategy the author or characters used. Put your brain into action in a new way.

Do you like to work with your hands or figure out puzzles? Take on a new task each weekend that challenges you to go beyond what you know. Myla Kabat-Zinn said, “Each difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart.” This comes from nurturing fresh, unadulterated brain cells.

Do not be content with doing good work. Ask for new assignments where you can learn from taking new steps and analyzing mistakes. Mistakes do not mean failure; they equate with a faster and smarter brain.

BRAIN TIP #2: Practice possibility thinking. Ask yourself if there are other ways to do a task or approach a person. Consider that you might have other reasons for making the decision you made that weren’t apparent in your explanation or excuse. Practice beginner’s mind. When you only see things as you know them now, the new cells have no purpose and die. If instead you look out on your day and say, “What will I see different today? What wonderful new things will pass my way?” then you give your new cells a chance to survive.

Alter a routine. Drive a different way to work. Exercise your eyes and ears by looking for what you have never seen before. The cells you nurture doing mundane tasks will be available to you when you face a more complex problem later.

BRAIN TIP #3: Foster optimism in the present moment. Dwelling in the past leads to a poor evaluation of the present and living in the future results in anxiety. If instead you systematically catch your thoughts and move them back to the moment, you will become keenly aware of yourself and your environment where life becomes a fascinating learning laboratory. The delights and challenges of the present make for fabulous food for your brain.

“Learning rescues cells from death,” Tracey Shors of Rutgers University said. “The more engaging the task, the more effectively the new cells are rescued.” Find out what you love to do and explore new ways of doing it. Completing small but difficult tasks actually makes your entire life easier as your brain births and grows each day.

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