How can I sharpen my brain?

It can be mentally exhausting to try and resume your “normal” schedule during coronavirus. You may be working remotely, helping your children adapt to hybrid learning, keeping your family safe from coronavirus, or all of the above. Add trying to practice self-care in this mix of endless responsibilities. All this stress can zap your concentration, make you irritable or depressed, and potentially damage your professional and personal relationships.

However, brain exercises, especially before work, can help get you through your day. “Working out areas of the brain before a full day can set us on a path of increased agility and flexibility in our thinking and enable us to communicate more calmly and effectively with our colleagues,” says Dr Jennifer Wolkin, a clinical neuropsychologist. Fold a mix of these brain exercises into your morning routine and you’ll find yourself working smarter and more efficiently from the get-go.

Relax with a good read

In today’s fast-paced day and age, it’s hard to remember to unplug and take time for the simple things that relax and stimulate the mind. Reading is certainly one of those—be it a chapter book, newspaper, or online article. “Some of the best activities to perform are ones that enrich the brain with new information, like reading,” says neurosurgeon Dr Jason Liauw.

“Taking in a good book or the morning paper is not only a calming way to start your day, but it also can help you reorient your priorities, taking you momentarily out of the daily grind from yesterday before today’s begins.” Most importantly, reading can also cause a frameshift in your mind, so that when you’re in the middle of your day, you may be able to look at your routine and tasks through a different lens.

Do exercise

You probably know how important of a role exercise plays in your health and mood, but there are some additional brain-boosting reasons to sneak in a workout before work. “Exercise actually alters brain chemistry and has even been likened to the effect of taking antidepressants,” says Wolkin.

“It signals the release of several key neurotransmitters, many of which play a vital role in keeping our brain sharp as we age.” Exercise also helps pump blood flow and oxygen to the brain, allowing your grey matter to work to its highest capacity, which translates to better and sharper decision making, judgment, and memory.

Practise meditation

“Studies have found that the amygdala, known as the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice,” says Wolkin. “The impact mindfulness exerts on our brain is born from routine—a slow, steady and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgemental and less reactive.”

Meditators also show a greater ability to recall information faster, leading researchers to believe that the ability to quickly “screen out” mental noise, allows the working memory to search and find information needed more quickly and efficiently, says brain expert Daniel Amen, double-board-certified psychiatrist, physician, and author of Time for Bed Sleepyhead.

Play classical music in the background

The gentle, peaceful sounds of classical music from the likes of Mozart and Beethoven have long been touted as beneficial to the brain and productivity in general. “Listening to classical music while getting dressed in the morning or exercising is a one-two punch of neural circuitry that’s been shown by researchers to significantly improve verbal fluency, cognitive functioning, and overall focus and concentration,” says Dian Griesel, entrepreneur and business and health spokesperson.

Play a fast logic-based game

Lifelong learners are definitely onto something, as continued education—not just higher education—promotes brain health and creates new neural connections. “Even just taking a stab at a crossword puzzle or taking online quizzes that challenge your mind, can help build cognitive reserves,” says Wolkin. The best tasks for the brain are not only challenging, but are varied and novel—think Sudoku, or memory-recall games or apps.

“It’s important to keep brain-boosting activities constantly changing with increasing complexity as well as cross-training brain activities that use different parts of the brain,” says Dr Kristin M. Mascotti. “Consistency is key, and many of these techniques can be done in just a few minutes every day with different skills tested on different days.”

Make a gratitude list

When you bring your attention to the things in your life for which you’re grateful, your brain actually works better, especially with a gratitude list. “Brain imaging studies show that negative thought patterns change the brain in a negative way, but that conversely, practicing gratitude literally helps you have a brain to be grateful for,” says Dr Amen. Every day, write down five things you’re grateful for—whether that’s your dog, your job, or that the football season has started back up again.

Get a good night’s rest

It sounds obvious, but between 33-45 per cent of adults report they get insufficient sleep at least one night per month, according to the Sleep Health Foundation. “Sleep is proven in countless studies to help our ability to recall—which directly affects our capability to control both our behaviour and learning,” says Griesel. “Sleep deficits actually result in performance comparable to intoxication.”

The best way to prime your body for a great work performance the following day is to stick to a sleep schedule. Make sure that it doesn’t change much on the weekends. Also, remember to practice a relaxing bedtime ritual, like reading a book. Make sure your room is dark and cool at an ideal temperature of around 19 degrees celsius.