We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, mentalfloss.com is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event that will feature—yes—live brain surgery. Hosted by Bryant Gumbel, the special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.
Think you need to listen to Mozart or complete crossword puzzles to boost brain function? These quirky activities might also do the trick.
1. CONSUMING CAFFEINE
Notice that your focus sharpens after you’ve had your morning or mid-afternoon Starbucks? This won't come as a surprise, but “consuming caffeine can improve performance on simple and complex attention tasks,” Mary M. Sweeney, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told mental_floss.
According to research, caffeine blocks receptors for a neurotransmitter called adenosine, which regulates our sleep cycles. This prevents the adenosine from telling us that we’re tired—hence, why we feel more perky and awake after we’ve slurped down a cup o’ Joe.
2. GETTING EXERCISE
Sure, exercise is good for your muscles, but it’s also good for your brain. One recent study showed that walking for just one hour twice a week increases the size of the hippocampus—the region that’s associated with verbal memory and learning. Exercise also helps you bust stress, which is known to affect both memory and cognitive function. So hit the treadmill and work out your body's most important organ. You'll thank yourself later.
3. HAVING SEX
According to researchers at the University of Maryland, regular sex enhances mental performance and increases neurogenesis, or the production of new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in the storage of long-term memory—meaning that by getting a little frisky, you could be boosting your recall abilities.
It might look like you’re zoning out while doodling, but scribbling away in a notebook’s margins might actually improve your memory, help you absorb new ideas, and keep you on task.
In one study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers remembered more information from a boring answering machine message than non-doodlers. Researchers think this might be because doodling prevents you from daydreaming—an activity that actually requires a lot of processing power—and makes you focus on the situation at hand.
If you’re trying to learn new material, avoid locking yourself away in the library for too long. According to Benedict Carey, a reporter who covers brain science for the New York Times, switching up locations while studying generates new associations in your brain and makes it easier to remember facts later.
“The brain wants variation,” Carey says. “It wants to move, it wants to take periodic breaks.”
6. LOOKING AT PICTURES OF NATURE
If you have a problem with making impulsive decisions—say, eating too much fast food or not doing your homework—you might be able to curb these negative behaviors simply by gazing at scenes from nature.
A study recently published in PLOS ONE showed that people who look at images like lakes, forests, and mountains make less-spontaneous choices than individuals who look at pictures of buildings or geometrical shapes.
“Essentially what we suspect, and that preliminary data support, is that people's perception of time may be ‘lengthened’ with exposure to nature,” the study’s lead author, Meredith Berry, told mental_floss. “That is, they perceive more time to pass than has actually passed when looking at photos of nature (e.g., trees, mountains, lakes) relative to photos of built environments (e.g., buildings, cities). This ultimately enables people to look toward the future more, and make more future-oriented choices, rather than short-term, impulsive choices," she says. An example of an impulsive choice might be eating a high-fat food now rather than prioritizing longer term health goals.