Flash cards, outlining, mnemonic devices — all of these are certainly useful learning techniques. However, effective studying strategies can only take you so far. There are other lifestyle components that make a difference in your ability to learn — and retain — information. Here are six tips to add to your daily routine, which might just help you reap the cognitive rewards.
1. Get enough sleep — especially right after studying new material
Many researchers believe that the very purpose of sleep is to consolidate information we learned throughout the day — in other words, it may help our short-term memories evolve into long-term memories. One study in particular, led by Wen-Biao Gan, involved teaching two groups of mice a new skill. After learning the skill, one group slept for a given period of time, while the other group stayed awake for the same interval. Both groups experienced an increase in dendritic spines (the structures that form synaptic connections between neurons), but the group that slept after learning the new skill showed significantly more dendritic growth. So, make sure you’re getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and consider taking a nap after a study session.
2. Participate in aerobic exercise
We’ve long known that exercise is essential to our physical well-being, but it also provides benefits for our brain. A study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience showed the effects of an aerobic exercise program in older adults, compared to their peers who did not participate. Cognitive gains were manifested in the exercise group’s improved immediate and delayed memory performance, which was associated with increases in both left and right hippocampal cerebral blood flow. One mechanism that could explain the link between exercise and improved memory is that exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Dr. John Ratey calls “the master molecule of the learning process.”
3. If you’re exercising, you might as well do yoga
One study, conducted at the University of Illinois, compared how older students performed on cognitive tests after doing eight weeks of yoga versus the usual stretching alongside a regular exercise routine. Edward McAuley, a researcher on the study, explained the results: “Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information. They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted.” Scientists cannot pinpoint for sure the reason why yoga seems to improve cognitive performance, but some suspect it has something to do with yoga’s capacity for moderating stress levels.
4. And while you’re at it, add in some meditation
Dr. Sara Lazar is one of the first neuroscientists to illustrate that meditation changes the brain. Her study involved comparing the initial and final brain scans of 16 participants who completed an eight-week long mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) program. A press release from the Massachusetts General Hospital (where the study was conducted) revealed the results: “The analysis of MRI images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory.”
5. Feed your brain
All the foods that your body requires, your brain also needs to function optimally. Dr. Philippa Norman explains that, “of the solid matter in the brain, 60 percent is fat” — and because of this, we need to eat healthy, polyunsaturated fats, found in fish and nuts, for example. Our brains also need healthy protein and micronutrients in order to produce neurotransmitters and maintain neuronal function, as well as complex carbohydrates to fuel our brain’s activity. One “superfood” in particular that seems to offer a cognitive boost: blueberries, probably because of their flavonoid content.
6. Stay hydrated
Dehydration has well-known consequences, but a growing body of evidence suggests it also affects cognition. According to Dr. Ana Adan: “Being dehydrated by just 2 percent impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills, as well as assessment of the subjective state.” This makes sense, considering water makes up nearly 75 percent of the brain. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends that women consume about 2.7 liters of water a day, while men should drink 3.7 liters.
All this is not to say that exercising, eating right, and sleeping well are enough to make you ace that final exam. You do, of course, still have to study (and the most effective ways to do so are another can of worms entirely). But in order to stay sharp long into old age, the strategies listed above can serve as a cognitive whetstone.
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2015 issue.
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