Se­crets to a Smarter You



MOST OF US yearn to im­prove our men­tal acu­ity. As it turns out, beef­ing up your brain is like build­ing a lim­ber body: with a few sim­ple ex­er­cises, you can be in tip-top cere­bral shape. Here, some work­out op­tions.


How many hours did you spend read­ing books last week? This ques­tion has been asked in thou­sands of homes ev­ery other year since 1992 as part of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan’s Health and Re­tire­ment Study (HRS). In 2016, when Yale re­searchers dug into the HRS data col­lected from more than 3,600 men and women over the age of 50, a hope­ful pat­tern emerged: peo­ple who read books for as lit­tle as 30 min­utes a day over sev­eral years were liv­ing an av­er­age of two years longer than peo­ple who didn’t read any­thing at all. News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines granted a smaller but sim­i­lar ad­van­tage.

Why would a seden­tary ac­tiv­ity add years to your life? For starters, read­ing—es­pe­cially fic­tion—has been shown to in­crease em­pa­thy and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. Sharp­en­ing th­ese so­cial tools can lead to an in­crease in pos­i­tive hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, which in turn can lower stress lev­els—both fac­tors that lead to health and longevity.

Then there’s the fact that books ex­pose you to fresh words and phrases. New find­ings from Spain’s Univer­sity of San­ti­ago de Com­postela in­di­cate that a large vo­cab­u­lary may fos­ter a more re­silient neu­ral struc­ture by fu­elling what sci­en­tists call cog­ni­tive re­serve. You might think about this sur­plus as your brain’s abil­ity to adapt to dam­age. Just as your blood cells will clot to cover a cut on your knee, cog­ni­tive re­serve helps your brain cells find new men­tal path­ways around ar­eas that may have been in­jured by stroke, de­men­tia and other forms of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion.


Words from lan­guages other than your na­tive tongue are also good for shoring up cog­ni­tive re­serve. Poly­glots have been shown to be stronger at mul­ti­task­ing, su­pe­rior at mem­o­riz­ing and bet­ter at fo­cus­ing on im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion. Toronto-based re­search pub­lished in 2006 in the jour­nal Neu­ropsy­cholo­gia has shown that mul­ti­lin­gual peo­ple de­velop ini­tial de­men­tia symp­toms four years later, on av­er­age, than their mono­lin­gual coun­ter­parts. And while a brain that learns an­other lan­guage at an ear­lier age will likely see more cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits than a late-life learner, there are gains no mat­ter when you start.


What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween some­one who can re­mem­ber hun­dreds of words or num­bers and the rest of us? It’s not based on brain struc­ture; it’s sim­ply men­tal train­ing and good strate­gies. Here are some handy tricks for use in daily life.


TECH­NIQUE: Count it out.

You could use your birth­day or your phone num­ber, but iden­tity thieves have a way of fer­ret­ing those out. In­stead, try this tip from Do­minic O’Brien, a Bri­tish mnemonist and an eight-time World Mem­ory Cham­pion. Write a four-word sen­tence, then count the num­ber of let­ters in each word. For in­stance, “This is my PIN” = 4223.

TAR­GET: Facts and fig­ures.

TECH­NIQUE: Say them aloud. It turns out the one-room-school­house teach­ers of yore were onto some­thing when they made stu­dents re­cite their les­sons. An in­flu­en­tial 2010 pa­per out of On­tario’s Univer­sity of Water­loo sug­gested there’s a ben­e­fit to ac­tively “pro­duc­ing” data by typ­ing it, draw­ing it or say­ing it aloud. “The dom­i­nant the­ory is that the ex­tra stuff one does, be­yond silent read­ing, ren­ders that in­for­ma­tion more dis­tinc­tive

in mem­ory,” says Dr. Glen Bod­ner, di­rec­tor of the Mem­ory and Cog­ni­tion Lab at the Univer­sity of Calgary. How­ever, this strat­egy works best for help­ing you rec­og­nize a fact as fa­mil­iar and cor­rect when it comes up later on, rather than help­ing you pull it out of thin air.

TAR­GET: New vo­cab­u­lary words.

TECH­NIQUE: Switch up your study rou­tine.

In a clas­sic ex­per­i­ment con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in the 1970s, sub­jects stud­ied a list of words in two sep­a­rate ses­sions. One group spent the whole time in the same room, while the other split the les­sons be­tween two lo­ca­tions. When tested—in yet an­other room—the stu­dents who crammed in mul­ti­ple places re­called 53 per cent more than the oth­ers. Sub­se­quent stud­ies showed that vary­ing other as­pects of your en­vi­ron­ment (the time of day, the mu­sic in the back­ground, whether you sit or stand, etc.) can also help your re­call. The the­ory is that your brain links what­ever you are learn­ing to the con­text around you, and the more con­tex­tual cues you pro­vide, the more your brain has to draw upon when it’s try­ing to re­mem­ber.

TAR­GET: Faces.

TECH­NIQUE: Fo­cus on noses. Rather than fo­cus­ing on some­one’s eyes, fo­cus on the cen­tre or to the left of the nose. Do­ing so al­lows you to take in the whole face at once, sug­gests a 2008 gaze-track­ing ex­per­i­ment from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Diego.

TAR­GET: Your gro­cery list.

TECH­NIQUE: Use the body sys­tem. Trans­form­ing in­for­ma­tion into a vivid men­tal im­age is a tried-and-true mem­o­riza­tion tech­nique. Pic­ture the items on your list with dif­fer­ent parts of your body. For in­stance, imag­ine bal­anc­ing a pack­age of cheese on your head, an egg on your nose and a bot­tle of milk on your shoul­der.

IF THE PROSPECT of adopt­ing all th­ese brain-boost­ing habits at once seems daunt­ing, fear not: the key is choos­ing tar­get ar­eas that make sense for you and ap­ply­ing those strate­gies in earnest. Be­fore long, you may no­tice your mind is faster, stronger and sharper than ever be­fore. Good luck!

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