When you think about your brain performance, at what age do you believe it was functioning at its peak? When do you feel that you were in your optimal mental zone?
As a cognitive neuroscientist, I have asked this question hundreds of times all over the country to women and men of all ages. It never ceases to amaze me that people almost uniformly respond that their peak brain performance occurred when they were a decade or so younger – no matter how old they are now!
My admittedly unscientific survey underscores to me what I have seen throughout my career in research and applied science: most people are stuck in an outdated understanding of their brain and its power. The idea that intelligence is innate has been deeply ingrained in conventional wisdom for the past century. Exemplified by the traditional IQ test, the belief is that our brain’s capacity is fixed – and there is nowhere to go but down.
Today we know that this is simply not the case. Over the course of my career, I have witnessed incredible advances in our scientific understanding; nearly everything we once believed about the brain and its capacity has been overturned. Indeed, I have devoted my life’s work to this new and constantly expanding knowledge about the brain’s capacity to adapt and get stronger, better, as we age.
Mid-life is a great time to tune in to our brain’s performance. Imagine the possibilities if you could combine the speed and flexibility of your younger brain with the wisdom and efficiency of your brain today. I’m here to say that it’s possible, and the way to do it is by engaging your frontal lobe functions.
The frontal lobe sits just above our eyes, inside the skull. It represents about one-third of the whole brain and serves to orchestrate our capacity to reason, think abstractly, innovate, and integrate our higher-level thinking. It is our brain’s command center.
It is the last part of the brain to fully develop. Even more crucially, its dynamic power allows us to think smarter, more efficiently and more deeply as we age. Perhaps this is why it is sometimes referred to as the “seat of wisdom.”
In short, it is entirely possible to have the speed of processing of a younger-working brain as well as the wisdom and experience that come with age – the best of both worlds!
Let your devices store vast quantities of data points; use your brain more strategically for higher-level thinking by applying the two-pronged “focus and filter” approach. Start by attending to the most essential information, while simultaneously filtering out extraneous data that is not critical to the task at hand. This will free up your brain for what it does best: work dynamically, solve problems, create new insights.
Innovation is the ability to generate and exploit new ideas that improve upon and change old ways of doing things. Rote memorization and basic fact retrieval are boring compared to the soaring pleasure of creating new knowledge. Your brain is invigorated when you challenge it to connect the dots in new ways and compose novel ideas. The next time you read a book or watch a movie, take a moment to consider a theme and how it can be applicable to your own life; or perhaps imagine a new character for the story. The mental flexibility needed for this exercise will help strengthen your brain and build neural connections.
Research has demonstrated that social connection is critical to improving brain performance and health. Practicing kindness enhances and strengthens our social support systems, with benefits that are both physical (lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels, improving sleep) as well as psychological (reducing depression and anxiety, calming the mind and increasing overall happiness). For the next two weeks, start and end your day with an act of compassion. Keep a log of these acts, as well as times that you are on the receiving end. Check in with yourself after two weeks to take stock of any changes in your general level of stress (it should be lower) and happiness (it should be higher).
Coming back to my initial question, would you answer it differently with these fresh insights? I hope you will now conceive that your best brain years are yet to come!