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5 Ways to Focus on Brain Fitness

Determination

For pretty much all of us, developing brain fitness means doing something different. Either we have to do something we don’t do now, such as exercise or eat antioxidant-rich foods, or we have to do less of something we already do, such as eating high fat foods or just eating too much.

As a neuropsychiatrist, I often work with people who want to change something about themselves or their lives. And wanting to change raises the paradox we all face at times: we want to change, but we don’t.

The psychoanalysts used to have complex theories about why people do things that appear self-defeating. I think there’s a better answer: lack of focus. This may seem too simple, but attention is a complicated ability that is affected by things inside and outside of us.

When cognitive psychologists says that attention is a limited resource, they mean that you can only focus on a limited number of things at one time. Research has shown that even people who believe they are good at doing more than one thing at a time actually aren’t.

What does that have to do with change? In order to change, you have to be able to pay attention to what you’re doing and remember that you want to do something different. If you’re watching TV, it’s easy to eat an entire bag of chips. If you really pay attention to what you’re doing and at the same time remember that you want to lose 10 pounds, the chances are you will eat less. But when your attention is spent on the TV, your behavior becomes almost automatic (and probably outside of your awareness).

What can you do? Here are 5 ways to develop focus on what you want to change:

  • Start every day with 10 minutes of focused thinking or meditation. Break up the morning rush for just a few minutes so that you’ll have the change to reflect on your goals for the day.
  • Help yourself remember to pay attention. Recognize that you will forget or become distracted from your goals, and do something about it. In Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, birds were trained to help people to remember this point by repeatedly saying “Attention!” You may not have a mynah bird, but you can put a note on the bathroom mirror or a picture on the refrigerator to help you remember your goals.
  • Schedule a reminder in your phone or computer. Set it to pop up at a particular time or interval to remind you to stop for a few moments and review your goals, to meditate, or to relax.
  • Schedule time once a week for a more complete review of your goals at a time when you won’t feel rushed. Take some time to think about how well you’ve done during the preceding week, and focus on your goals for the coming week.
  • Try writing down personal brain fitness goals and keep the list somewhere that you will see without making a specific effort, such a door you walk through every day.

If you want to achieve something – whether it’s weight loss, increased exercise, or consistent brain training – you have to deploy some of your limited resource, attention. Finding ways to keep your goals in mind, every day, is a key.

Five Ways to Train Your Brain–Right Now!

Blue neuron with orange colors

It’s often tempting to put off setting up a brain fitness program, or to skip some of its elements, like exercise. But you don’t need to set aside a specific time for brain fitness. In fact, you may do better if you integrate brain fitness into your daily routine.

Here are five things you can do to improve your brain fitness right now. Each targets one of the key elements of brain fitness or brain training. They’re free and easy to include in other daily activities.

Take a deep breath. Breathing deeply can help improve the level of oxygen in your blood and reduce stress. It’s hard to be tense when you’re taking a deep breath.

Break a habit. While habits are shortcuts we develop to get things done efficiently, they don’t improve brain fitness. Always take one route to work or the grocery store? Try a new one. Exploring what’s around you probably will help your brain form new connections between neurons.

Do mental arithmetic. Look around you and find two numbers. Add them, subtract them, multiply them, divide them.

Focus! Developing better attention may help you improve your memory and probably will help you be less likely to get distracted when you’re doing something. Take a few seconds to pay attention to something around you – look at the chair on other side of the room. Look at its form and color. Could you draw it from memory?

Don’t focus! When your brain is idle, a group of structures in it are activated in something called the default network. Problems in the activation of the default network are associated with brain disorders as different as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Making the transition from from focused attention to not attending may help improve your brain fitness.

Brain Fitness

Strength Training and the Brain

Gray haired woman lifting weight

Lots of evidence points to the usefulness of aerobic exercise for maintaining and improving mental functioning (see a previous blog post here and an extensive review article here). It is not as clear, though, whether strength training has an effect. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that even a …

Concentration

Old book pen magnifier

Maria Konnikova posts an interesting article in this past Sunday’s New York Times on the effects of undivided attention and mindfulness. In her post, she links concentration to Sherlock Holmes (perhaps because that’s a link to her forthcoming book), but she provides a nice if brief review of some of …

Cognitive Lifestyle and Neuroprotection

man thinking

A study from earlier this year sheds light on how being mentally active may confer protection for cognitive decline. Michael Valenzuela is a researcher whose work focuses on understanding the links between mental activity over someone’s entire life and their later function. In previous studies, he and his colleagues have …

Physical Activity and How Long You Live

Man riding a bicycle in a race

Lots of research has shown that, at least over short periods of time, people who are physically active are more alert, remember things better, and are in better health. But does that mean that they live longer?  A recent review article looked at this question. The authors found 13 papers …

Pulmonary Function and Cognitive Aging

Picture of people running

An interesting study appears this month in the journal Psychological Science. The authors used data obtained over 19 years to study the relation of pulmonary (breathing) functions and changes in cognition with increasing age. Earlier studies had shown that both tend to get worse as we get older, but it …

RSS Worry and GAD Blog

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