3 Ways to Build Brain Power
Bless me readers for I have sinned. It has been four months since my last blog post. In that time, I posted three times on Biznology. I spoke at OMMA Global, Confab 2012, and SMX Advanced. And I have not blogged about any of those activities in this space. Quite frankly, the experiences left me so drained of fresh ideas for this blog, I couldn’t bring myself to write about them here.
Every time I sat down to write, it seemed more like a laundry list of experiences than anything worth publishing. The question that naturally arose at these times: How do I cultivate fresh ideas even when my life and work is so frenetic, it precludes fresh ideas? I don’t have any easy answers to that question. But I do have a simplistic one: I need to build a more effective brain.
I know that sounds ridiculous. We have the brain God gave us and all we can do is make the best use of it, right? Well, no, actually. I have done a lot of reading on airplanes and in hotel rooms, trying to learn how to overcome my writers’ block, for lack of a better phrase. In the course of that reading, I have learned that we can build stronger, more powerful brains just as we build stronger, healthier bodies–through exercise. I have begun doing some of these exercises and, I must say, it is starting to pay off. Consider this blog post the first fruits of this exercise. If you are interested in learning these exercises, please read on.
1. Stretch yourself
The most important thing I took away from The Brain that Changes Itself is that our brains are marvels of plasticity. We can change our brains simply by routinely changing our behavior. If we only think and behave in terms of our own limitations, our brains will remain thus limited. If we stay in our comfort zones, our brains will not grow in the ways they need to if we are to become more effective people. But if we challenge ourselves to do new things, our brains will adapt. This adaptation leads to growth not just for the affected areas of the brain, but for the whole brain. Brain growth releases chemicals that cause heightened functions in other parts of the brain as well.
In my case, I started playing the guitar again and learning new music. The connection between the physical movement of my fingers and the associated brain growth is creating the conditions for improved function outside of my musical acumen (or lack thereof). Many disabilities are exacerbated by slow brain function. By helping my brain to grow, I am speeding up my processing, which helps me process many other things faster and more efficiently.
Of course, you don’t have to learn an instrument. You can learn yoga or take up drawing. It just needs to be something that’s new, challenging and regular (preferably daily).
2. Visualize ideas
The opening keynote of Confab 2012 by Dan Roam was all about his book Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. I confess I’m still working my way through the book, but I got a lot out of the keynote address. His main emphasis is the power of drawing pictures while trying to write. Too many authors try to express their ideas with words alone, and ignore the power of our brains to visualize ideas in pictures.
I won’t repeat what Roam spends an entire book explaining. But I do want to report that drawing and doodling while I write seems to help awaken a part of my brain that I had too long ignored, leading to a lot of fresh ideas. It especially helps with ideas that I’m not so sure about. Let’s face it, a lot of ideas we think are great turn out not to be, after we’ve done a lot of work to express them. Visualization is a great way to help seeds grow into vibrant plants, or to discover that they are just weeds after all. Better to discard flawed ideas before writing a treatise on them.
Still I want to also say that visualization is not a panacea. Roam’s two main subjects–Einstein and Da Vinci–were exceptional in many ways. No amount of visualization can help me come up with the Theory of Relativity. This is why I focus so heavily on starting with audience research. If we learn what our audience needs, we have a much better chance of connecting with them, whether our ideas are ground-breaking or merely helpful.
I consider writer’s block a symptom of a tired brain, one that can’t concentrate or focus. You think you have the seed of an insight and, when you try to focus on it long enough to explain it to your audience, it eludes your grasp. You’re left with a hull of an idea. The more stress we have, the more distractions, the more noise, the more tasks we have to do… all of these factors inhibit our ability to focus. In the digital age, life is a booming, buzzing confusion. Somehow, we need to train our brains to focus despite all this confusion. That’s what meditation is for.
The best short resource I have found on this is from the Institute of Noetic Science. Neurologist Richard Mendius explains a five-step process of training your prefrontal cortex–the part of your brain that controls focus and attention–to grow the connections needed to concentrate in our ADD culture. I especially like to do five minutes of meditation before going to sleep. I find the benefits accrue throughout the night. I wake up with greater concentration and focus than I have had in years.
It is empowering to think that if I want to do something new and exciting, and I work at it, my brain will grow into the new skills. It’s also comforting to know that I can slow the aging process by exercising my brain and my body. Most importantly, I have the power to improve focus and brain efficiency simply by stretching myself, visualizing my ideas and meditating.