The Big Idea
There is a really simple way to build your brainpower that involves you doing hardly anything at all. The trick is simply about being more mindful about what you are doing normally anyway, and performing a small adjustment to turn that everyday “auto-pilot” moment into brain growth opportunity. These things are so simple, that you might need to read on to the science bit to believe that they actually do work!
So trick number one. When you are going about your daily life, start to use your less dominant hand to do small tasks. Try to remind yourself to remember this article in the moment as you are using the TV remote control, or opening a door. Then change the channel or open the door with your left hand instead of your right – or vice versa if you are left-handed.
Same trick, version two: when you are out and about – on a walk perhaps or just popping to the shop or taking a letter to post (yes I do still do that!), take a moment and look at your surroundings as a photographer might do. If you are in an urban environment, look at how the tallest building is silhouetted against the sky, or whether there are any weeds growing out of the pavement cracks as you walk. If you are in your car, notice how a red road sign contrasts against a blue sky. If you are out in nature, pause to notice how many different shades of green are in a patch of grass and how any shadow on that patch makes any patterns. Count how many wildflowers you see as you walk along a path.
That’s it! Super simple. Involves no additional time and very little effort as you do this habit as you are going about your daily life anyway. What is amazing is that in doing these really small things you are activating and building literally millions of new pathways in your brain every time you do them. Millions – yes you read that right! To learn more about why that little thing is absolutely amazing and can lead to much bigger things, read on!!!
Got it…What’s the Science
There is a saying “where the attention goes, the energy flows…” And this is actually true – literally! When you are doing these small observations you are actually doing a ‘mindfulness’ activity. Two things happen in pausing to think to pay a slightly different form of attention to an everyday task. Firstly you are raising it to your consciousness and using your prefrontal cortex to help you intentionally recognise what is going on and what you want to be thinking about, this is a super skill in itself allowing you to be more able to be the conductor of your own orchestra, or captain of your own ship – choose your metaphor for your brain and what it is attending to here. Secondly, by doing this, you are sending new bioelectric energy to different parts of your brain, that otherwise would not have been “lighting up” during that activity. This encourages, makes and strengthens connections between related areas in your brain that wouldn’t necessarily have been as connected had you not done this deliberately. Thus, you are doing the same thing, but encouraging different parts of your brain to do it along with you. You are literally building your brain’s strength and capacity similar to if you were to strengthen and tone muscles through physical exercise.
We could easily underestimate the power of such a small step – but here is why – in brain-power terms – it is actually not small at all! Here are some big numbers…
The adult human brain has around 100 billion neurones and 100 trillion connections. That’s an absolutely mind boggling number! Every time you practise a new habit – even one as small as turning over the TV with your “wrong” hand – you are helping a different part of your brain to “fire-up” than you would usually. This means more activity in those under-used or new areas and this diversion of energy to those areas “lights them up” creating MILLIONS of new pathways and connections. The more you practice this, the more you activate those pathways, and the stronger the connections become making them easier to reproduce and so make a habit.
Yes you read that right millions. In fact, practising new habits in the right conditions could mean you create hundreds of millions and possibly billions of new connections.
The consequences of this for us as adult human beings is enormous. We used to think that our brains were relatively fixed from a young age. It is only relatively recently that neuroscience has helped us to understand that you can 100% teach an old dog new tricks – and then some!
Without being conscious of what we are doing in our daily lives and tacking action to mindfully choose to do something different, we aren’t being lazy – we are doing exactly what our brain wants us to do!
Research has suggested that by the time we are 35, up to 90% of what we think, feel and do is simply recycled stuff (frameworks) from our past. So if we are relatively successful at 35, we can very easily live a full and potentially quite happy life by being on auto-pilot and replicating the things we have learnt already.
In other words our brain likes to keep us as our 35 year old selves. After all if you get to that age you must have done something right, right!? Remember that your brain is wired to protect you from harm and to conserve energy. So replicating stuff that works for you and have already done hundreds of times before, and seems to have ‘worked’ is fabulous stuff as far as your brain is concerned:
- My currently life works well so I don’t need any new stuff = Safe = Tick.
- I’ve got where I am by doing these things, I don’t need any new stuff = Energy Efficient = Tick.
Your brain only changes, and then embrace new stuff, when and if you actually challenge it to do so – when you actively do something different and persist with it – despite it feeling a bit weird or awkward to start with.
In my head I think about myself being in a band. We could easily keep playing the much loved anthems that everyone loved back in the 80s and 90s – or I could move with the times, embracing new styles as well and adapt my set to incorporate some new material and still have the old songs up my sleeve as crowd pleasers! I can have the best of both. My brain is likely to tell me that “the old songs are the best” (and there is some neuroscience behind this too which we’ll save for another time) and use evidence of the crowd going wild to support that! If I am not careful, I might miss that some new people are coming to my concerts for the new songs… And they like the old stuff too. You can have both. Often the fear and uncertainty of not being as good at the new stuff is what puts us off trying in the first place – this can lead to a ‘fixed mindset’ – we are encouraging ourselves instead to have a ‘growth mindset’.
There’s more! We talked in our Instagram live on this topic about living life with more intent to conduct your own orchestra. The things that make up our lives – so our bodily health, our family life, our jobs, our hobbies, are like individual instruments. We can get really good at them with practise. We can cultivate habits that make us better at them – and that’s great! Who wouldn’t want to get better at their favourite sport or get promoted at work by repeating experiences and getting better at them?
However something magical happens when we bring those instruments together – symphonies! In thinking of our lives not just as separate parts, but starting to think a bit more holistically, we can start to see that developing a habit in one part of our lives, can have applicability somewhere else.
Let’s take cold showers as an example. As we know, it took Dr Iain a bit of working up to them! But like so many of you, when he took the step, he felt a bit braver afterwards! In a small way he had done something courageous to be a little bit proud of! Let’s not doubt though, that this one small thing created millions of new pathways for trying different things – and thus it follows, his brain will “allow” him to be a little bit braver next time, because it now has some evidence that nothing bad happened – that it was “safe” and that actually it didn’t take much effort his brain resisted – despite hime ‘knowing’ that it would be good for him. There is definitely something here too about you may not immediately notice changes on the ‘outside’ but they are definitely happening on the ‘inside’ and sometimes it just takes a bit of time to get over the threshold or obstacle and ‘take’, to take the plunge – again literally! And that’s normal and OK. We’ve just got to try and not settle for the normal and status quo if we want more from our brains and life.
What if taking a cold shower could make you braver elsewhere? What if being a little bit brave by turning the water cold creates and encourages millions more “brave” connections and activations in your brain that then are more easily excited when you need to be brave for something else? Imagine then, if taking one cold shower creates millions more ‘brave bits’, what happens when you take a cold shower everyday? And then when you take one for a minute instead of thirty seconds? And then when you find you get into colder seas faster on holiday? Hundreds of billions of “brave” connections – that’s what! (Dr Iain says there is in fact a lot of physiological processes going on here but conceptually it ‘works’ and is consistent enough to the science for us to be able to use it here).
Science has already proven that when we deliberately think more happy thoughts, we become happier. When we remember to think more optimistically, we become more optimistic – it is simple science – when we do something deliberate we create more connections. This means there are more pathways going forward for happiness or optimism or in our case bravery to travel through. So then, even when we are not thinking about it and doing it deliberately, happiness, optimism and bravery just find it easier to travel around than they used to. “You are what you think” Budda [paraphrased]. Just be warned that this works both ways! If you forever are focusing on the negative or reasons why not – guess what you are going to see and get? So it is true that you can think yourself happy and to a certain extent healthy and successful too.
So that is why even a small thing leads to a million changes! And each of those changes has the potential to make incremental differences that can be experienced – and to be the start of something much, much bigger.
By all means, if you have the time and inclination, please do take up some of the ‘big guns‘ that science proves gets those neurones firing and connecting big time! Learning a new musical instrument or a new language and meditation all have proven and significant impacts on our brain power. But if time is short or motivation is low, it is important to know that a little bit of something today and right now, is better than an intention to do a big thing that you put off until ‘tomorrow’. As our Cathy Hart says “one plank is better than no plank at all.”
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Tales From Our Testers
We would love to hear from you and see your pictures of your urban safari or your woodland walks! Maybe take a photograph of 3 things you see on your travels to encourage your brain to remember them. We would love it if you copied us in @notbloodyrocketscience and @thinkitoutltd and used our hashtags #the52tips #The52Project #itsnotbloodyrocketscience #thinkitout in your posts to encourage people to come and find out more about how they could join our community of experimental partners!
Learn More and Share
This has some great ideas in it and is a really accessible post – but be a little aware. Dr Iain thinks they might be misusing “neurogenesis” as a term here. That’s the benefit of having him on The52Project – all our science is triple checked by a real scientist! (No pressure Dr. Iain!)
Growth Mindset Links
Given #Tip8 is virtually zero effort for over a million benefits, we would say another “no brainer”!
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