Use brighter light
It's true! Bumping up your smartness factor can be as simple as turning on the lights. In a recent study from Michigan State University, rodents exposed to bright lights showed significant improvement on tasks, while those exposed to dim lights lost 30 percent of capacity in the hippocampus, a brain region for learning and memory. "Many people don't realize the actual physical impact that light can have on their bodies," says Ute Besenecker, PhD, Director of HealthE Lighting, Senior Scientist, Lighting Science Group, maker of the GoodDay and GoodNight bulbs. "By exposing yourself to specific lighting spectrums you can actually enhance your mental alertness, focus, and cognitive performance." Here are more ways to get smarter in your spare time.
Look at nature
Is nature your brain's miracle medicine? It just might be, according to research that shows getting out in nature can improve creative problem-solving by as much as 50 percent. “Our research has shown that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which improves our ability to be creative and solve problems,” says study author David Strayer, PhD, professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah. "It allows the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that is really important for critical thinking, problem-solving, decision making, strategic planning, and impulse control—to rest.” Even if you don't have time to go outside, another study showed simply gazing at pictures of nature boosted attention span and the ability to complete tasks without error. Take a walk in the park on your lunch hour, or even just look out the window.
Get a little sweaty
Getting your body moving has cognitive as well as physical benefits. A review of research showed even just one exercise session can lead to neurochemical changes that improve executive function. "Studies have shown that small bouts of exercise can enhance memory and learning, which may be due to the increased oxygen flow to the brain," says fitness and nutrition expert Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet. "Exercise also helps to boost the body's ability to remove waste products from the brain, which can fight against that 'foggy' feeling you start to get midday." Read more ways exercise makes your brain sharper.
Hop in the sack
A recent study found that those older adults who had sex weekly performed better on tests of verbal fluency and visuospatial ability. The researchers suspect that the dopamine or oxytocin released by the sexual activity could have a positive effect on neurochemistry and affect how the brain works. "Every time we do another piece of research, we are getting a little bit closer to understanding why this association exists at all, what the underlying mechanisms are, and whether there is a 'cause and effect' relationship between sexual activity and cognitive function," study author Dr. Hayley Wright, from Coventry University's Center for Research in Psychology, Behavior, and Achievement in the U.K., said in a press release.
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Get some sunshine
Besides the brain benefits of nature and exercise, the outdoors could add another boon to your cognitive abilities: vitamin D. Higher levels of the "sunshine vitamin," which can also be consumed in milk and oily fish, have been linked in studies with better cognition, as well as attention and information processing speed. In one animal study, consuming vitamin D directly led to improved performance on memory and learning tasks. (Check out these other supplements and vitamins for memory.)
Go to sleep early
You already know that your brain is foggy when you don't get enough sleep, but did you know that getting sleep can actually help it perform better? "University of Rochester researchers discovered that when you sleep, fluid around your brain cells washes away toxic waste proteins that accumulate in the brain when you are awake," says sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easily method. "Good sleep has been proven to increase your alertness, attention span, problem-solving and decision-making abilities, thinking speed, logical reasoning, and memory." The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours for adults. Here's how you can get smarter while you sleep.
Take handwritten notes
Look around your office meeting or lecture hall and you'll probably find many people note-taking on laptops or tablets—but don't be afraid to bust out the old pen and paper, because it actually might help you retain the info better. According to research from Princeton, handwritten note-takers had to be more selective about what they wrote down, (since you can't write as fast as you type) and this extra processing helped them understand and retain concepts better. (Another benefit: Doodling can make you more productive.) If you still want to go high-tech, try using a stylus.
Focus on one thing at a time
You may pride yourself on your ability to multitask—but it doesn't mean you're intelligent. In fact, trying to focus on more than one thing at a time may actually lower your brain's ability. "Multitasking causes brain fatigue,” Dr. Strayer says. "Our brains are able to perform better cognitively when they aren’t overtaxed.” A Stanford study found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time—and those who felt that multitasking helped their performance actually performed worse. Let your brain do its thing without making it switch from one task to another. And turn off your phone's notifications—the Stanford researchers found being constantly interrupted with electronic info negatively affected attention, memory, and overall ability to complete the task. A quiet work space can also help. If you're stuck in a noisy sea of cubicles, consider donning a pair of headphones—classical music can boost your brain power.
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Reheat in glass
Your leftovers in those sad plastic containers aren't doing your brain any favors. Chemicals in plastic like BPA and phthalates have been shown to have negative effects on your noggin—in one study from Yale, BPA led to disruptions in memory and learning. "Your best bet: Choose fresh or frozen foods when possible, and opt for glass or porcelain containers, especially for hot food or liquids, or when microwaving," says Lisa Lefferts, MSPH, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In addition, "avoid heating or microwaving plastics, and avoid plastics with recycle code 7 and 3." These brain-boosting foods will make you smarter.
Watching, as well as playing, sports has been shown to positively affect your brain: One University of Chicago study found that areas of hockey fans' brains usually reserved for physical actions were also activated when listening to sentences about the sport, showing a new way even simply watching games helps language processing. "Experience playing and watching sports has enduring effects on language understanding by changing the neural networks that support comprehension to incorporate areas active in performing sports skills," study author Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology, said on the university's website. Here are more of the best brain-boosting activities with science on their side.