Monday, June 06, 2005

11 steps to a better brain

From Read full article here.


The first step is to raise your arousal levels - the best drug-free strategy is to sleep well, eat foods packed with slow-release sugars, and take lots of exercise. It also helps if you are trying to focus on something that you find interesting.

The second step is to cut down on distractions. (Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction such as a phone call.)

Music can help as long as you listen to something familiar and soothing that serves primarily to drown out background noise. Psychologists also recommend that you avoid working near potential diversions, such as the fridge.

There are mental drills to deal with distractions. College counsellors routinely teach students to recognise when their thoughts are wandering, and catch themselves by saying "Stop! Be here now!" It sounds corny but can develop into a valuable habit.
And this on sleep, for those who've suffered the 'exam hell' of the Korean educational system where as the International Herald Tribune pointed out on 9th May:
'We have an old rule of four versus five. You can enter the college you want if you sleep only four hours a day, but you won't if you sleep five or more. 'You get used to it,' Hyun Chul said.
In South Korea, the college a student attends 'virtually determines his future for the rest of his life', said Mr Kim Dong Chun, a sociologist at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. A worker's salary, position and prestige in his 60s is often due to whether he passed an exam to enter an elite university when he was 19.
But in the past month, when there are mid-term exams at most high schools, at least five students have killed themselves, reportedly because of pressure to get better grades. More than eight out of every 100,000 students aged 15 to 19 killed themselves in 2003.
Parents send youngsters to special boot camps run by marines to learn perseverance. 'Schools are driving us to endless competition, teaching us to step on our friends to succeed,' said Shin Ji Hae, a 16-year-old girl, in a speech.
As one chatroom reply offered:
Sleeping for 4 hours just to get better grades??? I think the person is stupider than everyone else gives them credit for. A smart person knows how to balance work load and the amount of rest they should get. Plus, a smart person does not need 20 hours to study. If they really understand the subject, give them 10 hours and they can preach you science.

So, back to New Scientist:

Sleep on it
SKIMPING on sleep does awful things to your brain. Sleep is critical to sustaining operational performance. Planning, problem-solving, learning, concentration,working memory and alertness all take a hit. IQ scores tumble. If you have been awake for 21 hours straight, your abilities are equivalent to someone who is legally drunk. And you don't need to pull an all-nighter to suffer the effects: two or three late nights and early mornings on the trot have the same effect.

Luckily, it's reversible - and more. If you let someone who isn't sleep-deprived have an extra hour or two of shut-eye, they perform much better than normal on tasks requiring sustained attention, such taking an exam. And being able to concentrate harder has knock-on benefits for overall mental performance. Attention is the base of a mental pyramid - if you boost that, you can't help boosting everything above it.

These are not the only benefits of a decent night's sleep. Sleep is when your brain processes new memories, practises and hones new skills - and even solves problems. Say you're trying to master a new video game. Instead of grinding away into the small hours, you would be better off playing for a couple of hours, then going to bed. While you are asleep your brain will reactivate the circuits it was using as you learned the game, rehearse them, and then shunt the new memories into long-term storage. When you wake up, hey presto! You will be a better player.

The same applies to other skills such as playing the piano, driving a car and, some researchers claim, memorising facts and figures. Even taking a nap after training can help. There is also some evidence that sleep can help produce moments of problem-solving insight. The famous story about the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev suddenly "getting" the periodic table in a dream after a day spent struggling with the problem is probably true.

It seems that sleep somehow allows the brain to juggle new memories to produce flashes of creative insight. So if you want to have a eureka moment, stop racking your brains and get your head down.

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