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Updated 28 Sep 2020

How to fine-tune your brain

Your brain’s not a muscle, but it does need exercise. Want to be more creative, productive and efficient? The secret lies in taking good care of your brain and developing it as much as possible. Here’s how.

GG van Rooyen, Entrepreneur, 10 March 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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Let’s take a moment to appreciate what an incredible organ the brain is. The average brain has 85 billion neurons, each of which boasts 10 000 nerve-ending connections. So that means there are more than a trillion connections in the average brain.

It’s also estimated that a brain can store around one million gigabytes of data, and that messages travel through nerve endings at around 430 km/h.

The brain is an incredibly complex thing. We’ve figured out a lot as a species, but the nature of consciousness still escapes us. Despite all the technology available to us, there’s an awful lot about the brain that we haven’t figured out yet.

Related: Are you a right-brained entrepreneur?

What we do know now, however, is that you’re not simply ‘stuck’ with the brain you were born with. Brain plasticity (also known as neuroplasticity) is a term that has been coined to describe the way in which a brain remains malleable (or plastic) throughout its life.

A brain can — and does — change. And, depending on how you treat it, that change can be for the better, or for the worse.

“We don’t often stop to consider the fact that absolutely everything we achieve is down purely to our brains. Things that we tend to prize as entrepreneurs — creativity, productivity, quick thinking — all come down to effective use of the brain,” says James Thorburn, founder of Winning Wayz. “And the good news is, our brain is trainable. We can improve the way we think.”

Feed your brain good things

“About 2% of your total weight can be attributed to your brain, yet it consumes 20% to 30% of the energy you put into your body through food,” says Thorburn.

“So around 30% of what you eat goes towards fuelling your brain. If you want it to be efficient, you need to feed it well. Don’t skip meals and don’t eat junk food.”

Sugar is poison for your brain, alcohol as well. “You don’t need to cut out sugar, fat and alcohol completely, but try to limit your intake. I try to stick to a vegetarian diet a couple of days a week. Even red meat should be consumed in moderation,” says Thorburn.

Thorburn also recommends drinking loads of water and keeping your weight down. “Interestingly, there is a direct link between body weight and brain activity. Obesity is not good for brain activity. If you look at the brain scan of an obese person, you’ll find that there’s less activity than on that of a person who is trim. But that said, dieting and being too skinny isn’t good either. Your brain needs food,” says Thorburn.

Get more sleep

Comfortable -bed

We don’t sleep enough. A hundred years ago, people were averaging nine hours of sleep a night. Today, most people are lucky if they get six or seven — and entrepreneurs tend to sleep even less.

“Our brains need rest. If you don’t sleep enough, your brain won’t perform optimally. Not only will you make worse decisions, but your memory will also suffer, you’ll feel increased anxiety and you won’t be as productive as usual,” says Thorburn.

Switch off your gadgets

A big reason we’re not sleeping as well as we used to, is the fact that we drag laptops and tablets into bed with us.

“Entrepreneurs love gadgets and technology, and I don’t believe technology is a bad thing, but we do need to pay attention to how we use technology. We need to step away from it at times. My bedroom is a ‘tech-free’ zone, and I also make it a rule to never try and use two pieces of technology at the same time. I don’t fiddle with my phone in front of the television and I don’t use my tablet in conjunction with my laptop,” says Thorburn.

According to Thorburn, the ability to multi-task is a myth. “If you’ve got five windows open on your computer screen, you’re not making optimal decisions,” says Thorburn.

“Multi-tasking isn’t possible on a purely physical level. We can’t focus on two things at once. What your brain is actually doing is continually switching between tasks, which uses a lot of energy. This is not conducive to gaining a deep understanding of something or making informed decisions.”

Meditate and exercise

Man -meditating

“Meditation is a great tool for improving brain performance and, in fact, neuroscience is now allowing us to see how it affects the brain in positive ways,” says Thorburn. “It stimulates the frontal cortex and allows us to think more clearly.”

Related: Creative thinking 101

Meditation also encourages deep breathing, which is good for the brain. “Neurons cannot fire without oxygen. Try to practise deep breathing every day. I practise something called Sudarshan Kriya Breathing, and it’s amazing how it detoxes the body and clears the head."

Similarly, exercise is a great way to get the blood flowing. “You don’t need to exercise for hours on end, but 20 minutes of exercise every day is very good for the brain,” says Thorburn.

Learn to juggle

Juggling is a great way to train your brain because it engages multiple senses and different parts of the brain, but you can pursue any sport or hobby that encourages the brain to do some ‘heavy lifting’.

Learning to play an instrument is another great way of exercising the brain. You need only think of how tricky it can be to strum a guitar with one hand and hold a chord with the other to realise how it exercises the mind.

You can even play video games. “Video games can actually be great for the brain,” says Thorburn. “The problem is that they are so easy to become addicted to. But if you can limit yourself to 20 or 30 minutes a day, video games can be a good thing.”

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GG van Rooyen, Entrepreneur

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