5 habits that help you learn
Genetically speaking, you’re structurally settled into the adult body Mother Nature found most suitable, but that doesn’t mean your brain’s growth is also finished. Rather, studies and neuroscientists find that people who incorporate healthy habits, such as proper diet and adequate sleep, can boost cognitive functions and, therefore, learning.
One concept supporting this belief is called neuroplasticity, or the brain’s growth function. Although the physical size of your brain is permanent, its “soft wiring” continually engages new connective patterns and can restructure itself by growing more neurons.
“Without neuroplasticity we would not be able to learn anything,” according to the blog, TheBrainChangingDiet (recently renamed Train for Life). “Our brain is all about efficiency. So every time you do something, your brain tries to make it a little bit easier for you to do it the next time — you might know this as 'practice makes perfect.'"
This connective growth is optimal when people adjust their habits to reflect healthier behaviors, according to published reports. So don’t cancel that gym membership just yet because adhering to such healthy habits (or any of the following five) might make you a more intelligent, learned person!
1. Food for Thought
Beat a study or memorization rut by skipping the junk food, says Robin Nixon in LiveScience®. Calling the brain a “picky eater,” LiveScience writer Robin Nixon notes it comprises 2 percent of a person’s body weight yet uses an estimated 20 percent of one’s daily calories. Therefore, any significant drop in glucose can cause confused thinking. To avoid this, Nixon suggests eating smart to provide one’s self with the best brain food to improve cognitive function. This means deferring to small portions and eating carbohydrate-friendly veggies, fruits and grains. So bypass the overly sugary cake and instead opt for a single banana, which streamlines the ideal 25 grams of glucose in your blood needed for your brain to function at its best, Nixon says.
Good, polyunsaturated fats — like omega-3 found in fish and walnuts — along with protein-rich foods — like chicken — enhance learning as well.
“The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which humans mostly attain from dietary fish, can affect synaptic function and cognitive abilities by providing plasma membrane fluidity at synaptic regions,” states the 2008 study, “Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function,” conducted by UCLA Professor of Physiological Science Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla. Gomez-Pinilla’s study also recommends adults intake a variety of brain-benefiting, vitamin-rich foods. These include copper (beef/lamb liver and black pepper); iron (red meat, beans); calcium (milk); zinc (oysters); selenium (cereals, eggs); vitamin E (asparagus, avocado, spinach); and vitamin C (citrus fruits, calf/beef liver); among other nutrients.
2. Turn Zzz’s into A’s
Sleep-deprived students suffer more than just a poor grade here and there. Their overall learning is at risk. Investing enough shut-eye hours also translates into a smarter you since the brain both consolidates memories and stores new learning skills during sleep mode. Specifically, WebMD® reports a good night’s sleep helps improve the functionality of the brain’s lower part that controls speed and accuracy. Sleep also reduces the activity within the brain’s central part that correlate with stress and emotions, such as anxiety, the report further states. Simply put, you can tackle your daily tasks, including learning, more effectively with adequate sleep. And, no, putting the book under the pillow won’t work!
3. Lessen stress
Lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol also reportedly damages the hippocampus, making it more difficult to concentrate, notes ImproveMemory.org.
Yet also lessening physical stress facilitates learning. This includes alleviating repetitive stress/strain injury (RSI). Also known as overuse syndrome, this is the stress many students impose on their hands and posture by playing video games or text messaging and sitting at a desk for prolonged periods, respectively. While there are many scientific studies addressing RSI, The New York Time Company’s About.com Homework Tips provides valuable suggestions to combat RSI, including:
- Keep feet flat on the floor and sit up straight when typing.
- Exercise your fingers by wiggling and squeezing a ball every day.
- Don't spend more than 30 minutes doing the same hand-use activity without breaking.
4. Boost oxygen levels
Not smoking, regular exercise, outdoor activities. These recommendations boost brain cells, which are integral to learning. In 2008, a study presented at the Radiological Society of America’s annual meeting found adults who exercised regularly, or three-plus hours per week, had increased cerebral blood flow and vessels.
Science News also reported in January that a newer study, available for a fee via the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), supports the link between brain function and exercise.
“A memory center in the brain called the hippocampus shrinks a little bit each year with age, but older adults who walked routinely for a year actually gained hippocampus volume,” writes Laura Sanders of Science News.
5. Take a break
Just like anything, moderation is best. The same is true for students. Experts suggest that taking a well-deserved break from studying can boost concentration and offer new mental skills before returning to the books.
The non-profit health resource, Helpguide.org, suggests tapping into humans’ social nature. Specifically, the nonprofit says, interactions with friends in addition to laughing stimulate different regions of the brain and can lead to improved memory. Traveling can also stimulate the brain through its exposure to new concepts, languages and cultures. The Franklin Institute points out that early, nomadic Homo sapiens evidently fared better from the exposure to new places and foods compared to the less adventurous (and now-extinct) Neanderthal species.
So, go on. Explore and learn something new.
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