Your brain thinks better after a vacation
NicoElNino/ShutterstockDon't feel guilty about taking time off from work—studies show that vacations actually help you to be more productive. "Our brains are not machines that can work endlessly without a glitch," says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Depression in Later Life and a professor at Adelphi University. "This is why it's important to give yourself downtime, to allow your brain to rest, reboot, and return to functioning anew. Doing so allows the regulatory systems of your brain chill out." Science backs this up: A review of research confirmed that downtime is necessary for mental processing.
Here's why you have "a-ha" moments
Rosa Araci Henriques/ShutterstockAnother reason why downtime is so important? It frees your brain to think creatively, leading to more mental breakthroughs, or "a-ha" moments, than if you were constantly working. Although they can seem to come on suddenly, studies show these eureka moments are actually the result of your mind working in the background. Other research shows why it can actually be better to take a break from the task at hand in order to solve problems—this discontinuity prompts a mental restructuring that leads to the solution. Here are genius ways have more "eureka" moments.
You can train your brain to be happy
eakkaluktemwanich/ShutterstockAccording to psychologists, our brains have a "negativity bias" that might have helped our ancestors better recognize threats to their survival. But in our modern world, it would benefit our brains to have a more positive outlook on life. "You can train your brain to think positively, formulate happy thoughts, and counteract negative ones," Dr. Serani says. Employing new thinking habits are at the heart of psychotherapy, she says. "Changing how your think can improve how your feel," she says. Studies show practicing new thinking strategies by being mindful about positive experiences can actually alter the structure of the brain. Try these other 23 ways to improve your mood instantly.
Meditation rewires the brain
Andrii Lutsyk/ShutterstockThere are many compelling benefits of meditation, but research suggest that it can actually change how the brain works. "Brain mapping studies show that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress," Dr. Serani says. "Meditation also sharpens attention and improves cognitive functioning." One study showed that long-term meditation can actually help preserve the brain and save it from some of the effects of aging, and another found that meditation could improve concentration and memory. Don't miss these other 12 health benefits you'll get from 15 minutes of meditation.
Laughter is good medicine for the brain
nd3000/ShutterstockLaughing has a positive effect on the brain's functioning, so it is beneficial to work toward a more optimistic mindset. "There's a long history of research showing laughter surges feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin," Dr. Serani says. "When you laugh, brain neurochemistry sends endorphins out to decrease pain, improve resiliency, and relax muscle tone." When we hear something funny, our brain processes the language and decides if it's humorous. After our emotions are triggered, the motor region of the brain leads to the physical reaction of laughter. Find out why laughing at these dark jokes could mean you're a genius.
Changes in the brain can lead to mental illness
Evgeny Hmur/ShutterstockAccording to the National Institutes of Health, scientists are learning that mental illness is associated with changes in the brain's structure, chemistry, and function—so it has a biological basis in the brain. "Stress and environment can set into motion brain changes like blood flow, neural circuitry, neurotransmitters, and other functioning" that can lead to mental illness, Dr. Serani says. A recent Stanford study found that different psychiatric disorders have the same atypical brain structure in certain areas of the brain, which could mean they all have a similar cause. Make sure you know which everyday habits increase your risk of depression.
Smells are strongly tied to memory
Kasefoto/ShutterstockWhiffs of certain smells can instantly take us back in time to a particular memory, but what is it about our nose that is so strongly connected to our brain? One study from Brown University found that women had more brain activity when they smelled fragrances associated with positive memories than with fragrances they hadn't smelled before. Other studies show more brain activity with olfactory stimuli than its verbal reference (that means the smell of roses, for example, instead of the word roses). Although scientists don't totally understand why this happens, it could be because the parts of the brain that process smell, memory, and emotion are located close together and are actually connected—which isn't true of information from our other senses. Find out why sense of smell indicates your risk for memory loss.
Your brain processes more than five senses
sun ok/ShutterstockWhen you discuss senses, you normally think about the big five: vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But according to Harvard Medical School, neurologists have named several other ways we perceive the world. One is "equilibrioception," or balance, which is regulated by our vestibular system in the inner ear. Another is "proprioception," the sense of where our body is in space, which keeps us from bumping into things. Others include our sense of pain, our sense of temperature, and our sense of time. There are also internal senses, which tell us when we're hungry or thirsty, or when we have to go to the bathroom. Check out these other 50 incredible facts about basically everything.
Exercise benefits the brain
Vera Verano Photo/ShutterstockMany studies illustrate the ways exercise makes your brain better. "Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia in adults age 65 and older—however, at every age, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function," says NJ-based fitness expert and dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. "Exercise prior to learning a task was shown to result in increased memory and concentration." This appears to be linked to an increase in circulation bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain, while also helping to remove waste, she says. Learn the best time of day to work out if you want to improve your memory.
The Mediterranean diet does a brain good
Timolina/ShutterstockNutrition as well as exercise impacts how our brain functions. The Mediterranean diet—rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and fish—was shown in a recent study to preserve more brain volume in older adults than those who didn't follow the diet protocol. "Although more research needs to be done to determine exactly how this diet protects the brain, it is possible that the benefits such a diet has on reducing inflammation and improving vascular health may be the reason for the brain health benefits," Palinski-Wade says. Check out these other 25 brain-boosting foods that keep you sharp.