Gray Matters

Seven ways to keep a good head on your shoulders

The brain. It’s three pounds on average and is 85 percent water. It’s an absolute marvel of efficiency, possibility and confusion. This inconceivably complex hunk of tissue oversees our world like a Bond villain in a secret lair, directing this, moving that, and at some point inevitably asking us questions of ourselves to which we have no idea what the answers may be (see Sunday afternoon after a night on the Jameson … ouch). But the brain is also quite heroic, like Michael Jordan on a tear in the playoffs. It is everywhere, executing with perfection, effortlessly moving from one task to another, and we all too often take this for granted. Suffice to say, without this, the most complex organ in the body, we literally could not be. And yet how much do you think about taking care of yours? Just because it stops growing when we reach 20 years of age doesn’t mean we should forget about it. After all, the brain’s ability to form new circuits within it never stops, ever. As with every aspect of self-improvement, there are a thousand answers. Selected here are seven of my practical favorites:

Practice. The brain never stops learning, as long as you keep feeding it. Perhaps you might want to surf your way to and start putting some time in. Or do anything that gives the brain a good workout—Sudoku, Scrabble, chess … you get the idea.

Exercise. Regular readers will not be surprised to see this one. Jeff Victoroff, in Saving Your Brain (Bantam, 2002), argued that studies show that the more physically active a person is, the greater his cognitive performance. This is supported by the American College of Sports Medicine. There are a plethora of reasons why this is the case, but just trust me on this one. Worst-case scenario: You lose a few pounds.

Nutrition. Omega-3s, Omega-3s, Omega-3s. A wealth of research shows the positive effects of this supplement on the brain. Omega-3s are integral to the health of the outer membrane of brain cells. It is through the fat-rich cell membrane that all nerve signals will eventually pass. Let’s get “Vegas” with this analogy: Think of the membrane as a kind of concierge of the mind. Salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are all full to the brim when it comes to O-3s. Type in “healthy fats brain” to our old friend Google and there is plenty more to learn (and that in itself is good for your brain).

Music. This one can be considered controversial as the scientific research is still being accumulated. However, Einstein was once told by his schoolteachers that he was too stupid to learn, at which point his mother guided the young genius to the violin, something he credits as being one of the central catalysts for his monumental contribution to science. Look up the “Mozart Effect” on your iWhatever and make your own judgment. I’m firmly in the camp that music can help the brain to flourish (and Zoe Thrall, music director at the Palms Studio, agrees with me!).

Sleep. A bit like music, the jury is still out on several of the claims made regarding the quality of sleep and brain function. However, research has implied that during deep sleep the brain repairs itself and boosts the immune system. During REM sleep, the brain consolidates information learned during the previous day’s activities, and that quality sleep can improve memory performance and help concentration levels throughout the day.

Change it up. Today, use your weaker hand to do all the little tasks. Opening the fridge, turning on the light, eating that dessert. Force your brain to think, fire new synapses, break from some old habits, and get the big ball in your skull to second-guess itself for a second or two.

Stress. It’s a classic, but it’s a killer. As Dr. Richard Restak, a world renowned neuropsychiatrist, asserts: “Stress causes brain damage.” As author of 18 books on the human brain, it’s difficult to argue with him, and let’s face it, who needs stress in this life? There are volumes written about stress management, so if you feel like it’s a major factor in your life, seek help, either professionally or by your own means—but do not let it fester unchecked.

Ben Conmy, who earned his Ph.D. in sport psychology techniques from Florida State University, is a performance consultant based in Las Vegas working with athletes, executives and performers in the United States and Europe.