Train Your Brain With These Science-Backed Methods For Improved Focus, Memory And Cognition

The human brain is an amazing piece of kit, but stress, screen time and a lack of stimulation are blocking your creativity and damaging your mental capabilities. That’s the bad news. The good news is, that science has been hard at work finding the hacks to boost your brain power – RSNG dug deep and found these noggin nuggets to help you perform to your true potential…

1. Take A Nap To Get Creative Napping might seem like a luxury, but recent research suggests just 20 minutes of shut-eye can help you process information and improve virtually all areas of brain function. Speaking to RSNG, Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare, says, ‘Studies of napping have shown improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking, alertness and memory performance. As we go through the day our levels of alertness decrease, so having a nap can be a really helpful way of resetting ourselves. This is fundamental to the cognitive processes that then happen.’

If you still need convincing, look to NASA, Samsung and Google for inspiration; the tech giants take sleep very seriously, having recently installed ‘sleep pods’ for their employees to rest in. And in studies with military pilots and astronauts, NASA found that ‘power napping’ for approximately 20 minutes could improve alertness by 100% and performance by 34%.

Winwood warns that ‘power’ is the operative word: ‘Longer naps can create a ‘sleep hangover’, otherwise known as sleep inertia, which can disturb your normal sleep cycle. Sleep inertia is defined as the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come with awakening from a deep sleep. While this state usually only lasts for up to 30 minutes, it can be detrimental to those who must perform immediately after waking from a napping period.’

Exercise can be seen as a maintenance programme for the brain

2. Keep Up The Cardio Exercise is good for you – who knew? While we’re all aware of the physical and mental benefits of leading an active lifestyle, a recent study focused on the effect of exercise on a specific area of the brain, the hippocampus, which is largely responsible for memory. Researchers from the University of Manchester and Western Sydney University found that aerobic exercise has the power to significantly increase the size of the left region of the hippocampus.

Although lead author of the study, Dr Joseph Firth, said the increase in size was a secondary benefit to ‘exercise slowing down the deterioration in brain size.’ In other words: ‘exercise can be seen as a maintenance programme for the brain.’

If you struggle to the find the time or motivation to fit cardio into your week, try killing two birds with one stone by running or cycling to work – or, if your prefer fitness of the short and sharp variety, try TABATA training: pick an aerobic exercise (sprints, burpees, mountain climbers, etc) and perform 20-second bouts of all-out intensity, interspersed with 10-second rests, for eight reps (check with your doctor first).

3. Wake Up And Smell The Coffee Drinking your morning cup of coffee might transform you from zombie to upstanding member of society, but new evidence suggests the brain-boosting power of Joe can be felt before it even passes your lips. Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the study explored the effect that the smell of coffee – and even just a ‘coffee-like scent’ – can have on analytical reasoning.

Study lead professor Adriana Madzharov said: ‘It's not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting. But they also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.’

There is a clear connection between muscular strength and brain health

4. Get A Grip In excellent news for anyone who hit the weights room, a large study has shown a correlation between grip strength and brain power. Although more research needs to be conducted into whether weight training can directly improve brain health, Dr Firth, who also led this study, said: ‘We can see there is a clear connection between muscular strength and brain health.’

While improved grip strength is a by-product of regular trips to the gym, you can fast-track your development with any exercise that places your forearms and fingers under prolonged tension. Farmer’s walks with heavy kettlebells and pull-ups with loaded hangs (where you hold the down position at the end of the set) are all good grip-boosting options.

5. Have More Sex Sex not only burns a considerable amount of calories (around 100 for the average man), but new research published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour also suggests a link between under-cover activity and improved memory.

The Australian study, which analysed two years of data from more than 6,000 adults aged 50 and over, showed those who spent more time getting frisky were able to recall events better than the less sexually active participants. However, there’s no evidence to suggest regular romping will prevent age-related mental decline. Still, it can’t hurt...

6. Go Green We all know the importance of eating as much fresh, wholefood as possible, but it also pays to consider the colour of what’s on your plate – specifically, is it green enough? A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois found that lutein – a nutrient found in leafy green vegetables such as kale and rocket, as well as eggs and avocados – can help prevent cognitive decline later on in life.

The nutrient has also been linked to eye health and leafy green veg is also an excellent source of fibre, which provides a host of other immunity-boosting, fat-burning benefits. To get more lutein in your diet, up your intake of brightly coloured fruit and veg – particularly greens, oranges and yellows.

7. Look At The Positives The power of a positive mental attitude (PMA) has long been lauded for benefitting everything from heart health to maths skills. And new research suggests another key benefit from adopting a glass-half-full approach: improved memory. Researchers at Harvard University found the memory of people aged 60 and above was improved upon being presented with positive age-related words such as ‘wise’ and ‘astute’, whereas words with more negative connotations – ‘Alzheimer’s’ for example – worsened the test subjects’ performance.

The study highlights the importance of self-worth and positivity; in this hypercritical age, it’s easy to be too tough on yourself. Take a moment each day to celebrate your successes, what you’ve got to come, and how you matter to those around you – PMA can have a very real impact on your brain power and mental wellbeing.

WHAT NEXT? Watch this TED Talk on how to triple the power of your memory:

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.