4 Steps to Brain Fitness: Use It and Get More of It

March 3rd, 2016


This week our 10x Magnified Blog is focused on Wellness. Most of us already understand the value of physical fitness as a means of preserving the body’s proper functioning and preventing age related diseases. With the help of neuroscientists and advances in fMRI medical technology we also understand the equal importance of brain fitness, both from a cognitive and mood perspective. Today we’re focusing on brain fitness from a cognitive perspective.

Professors Gilkey and Kilts of Emory University’s medical and business schools explain how you can strengthen your brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities, and prevent functions such as memory from deteriorating as you age in their Harvard Business Review article, Cognitive Fitness. The brain’s alertness is the result of what the authors call cognitive fitness–a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt. Certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises enhance cognitive fitness. Mental workouts are the key.

The more cognitively fit you are, the better equipped you are to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will help you be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. Drawing from neuroscientific research as well as research in psychology and other mental health fields, the authors have identified four steps you can take to become cognitively fit:

Step 1: Understand How Experience Makes the Brain Grow

Direct experience remains the keystone of a person’s brain development, meaning learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. However, you can also gain experience through observation and indirect experience such as technology simulation to improve your golf swing or there are tons of apps out there to improve train of thought and decision-making.

Step 2: Work Hard at Play

It is critical to remember to play as you go about the hard work of your career. That’s because in adult life, play engages the prefrontal cortex (our most highly evolved and recently acquired brain areas), nourishing our highest-level cognitive functions—therefore play improves our ability to reason and understand the world. Albert Einstein, for example, saw his ability to grasp profound insights into the nature of the universe as a result of combination play. When asked to describe his experience in developing the theory of relativity, he observed that it began as a “physical sensation” that later became a set of visual images and finally emerged as a written formula that he could begin to describe in words and symbols.

As the author states, “Some organizations go out of their way to let people experiment and play. A host of hard-driving Silicon Valley companies, such as Google and Apple, provide environments that encourage some kind of play, referred to variously as Zen dens, play spaces, and chat chambers. As the leaders of these companies realize, a legitimate and comfortable environment for brains to play can be a powerful tool for allowing people to develop their creative capacities and cognitive health. Conversely, in companies that stifle play, brainpower may actually decrease as it does in children with failure-to-thrive syndrome.”

Step 3: Search for patterns

This can be seen as the capacity to simplify without being simplistic. Pattern recognition is the brain’s ability to scan the environment; discern order and create meaning from huge amounts of data; and thereby quickly assess a situation so that appropriate action can be taken right away and with a high degree of accuracy.

“For executives trying to make sense of a rapidly changing business environment, superiority in pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest competitive advantage that can be developed,” states Gilkey & Kilts.

Step 4: Seek Novelty and Innovation

In general terms what the author’s are talking about here is having an open attitude, comparative to what Buddhist monks refer to as the beginners mind. A beginners mind is a willingness to step back from prior knowledge and existing conventions in order to start over and cultivate new options—a challenge that typically activates right-hemisphere cognitions. In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, author Shunryu Suzuki describes the Zen mind as one that is open, allowing for both doubt and possibility, and one that has the ability to see things as fresh and new.

In the business world, Gilkey & Kilts also advocate adopting a mentee. “While it’s widely known being a mentee benefits rising executives, an ongoing stream of research reveals that the person who often gets the most value from a mentoring relationship is the mentor, who is exposed to information, queries, and ideas from which she or he may otherwise be too remote.”


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