Your brain’s not technically a muscle, but regular exercise can make it a whole lot stronger.
Forget that old adage about how you only use 10 percent of your brain: It’s completely untrue. Every region of your brain has a specific function, and deterioration in or damage to any area creates profound physical and mental difficulty. There’s still much we don’t know about our own grey matter: How is intelligence created? What is intuition? Why do we dream? But what we do know is that two hemispheres (right and left) comprise the brain, and each is divided into four major lobes: frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal. And don’t forget the hippocampus and the thalamus, which are as fun to say as they are to use. In the past 200 years or so, we’ve come to know each region’s function and, to a large extent, how to improve each segment’s performance. The good news? These brain-boosting tricks are accessible and easy to incorporate into full and busy lives.
The largest part of your brain is the frontal lobe, situated just behind your forehead. It’s the part you tap with your finger when you’re trying to figure something out, and for good reason—the frontal lobe is responsible for problem-solving, decision-making and short-term memory.
In early Mesoamerica, people practiced what is known as trepanation. Today we’d call it drilling a hole in the skull or a bad idea. The belief then was that trepanation would increase brain blood flow and cure various mental disorders, diseases and injuries. Turns out, the Mesoamericans could have avoided many a messy surgery by simply increasing their intake of nitrate-rich foods, no drills required. A Wake Forest University study published in 2010 revealed that 10 ounces of beet juice a day helped maintain and improve blood flow in the frontal lobe, especially in older people, which could reduce the incidence of dementia-related diseases. So put away the Dremel and guzzle back some borscht. (If beets aren’t your thing, no worries—try juicing spinach, strawberries, carrots or lettuce instead. all are high in nitrates.)
The right brain hemisphere controls the left side of your body and is primarily involved in emotional thinking, creativity and imagination. But don’t get caught up in that left-vs.-right debate when it comes to personality: a 2012 study at the University of Southern California found that the logical left brain’s ability to make quick judgments and plan ahead also boosts creativity. Right brainers can build left-and-right connections by playing sudoku, crossword puzzles or even good old Tetris.
The parietal lobe is located directly behind the frontal lobe, just under the crown of your skull. It controls speech, your sense of touch, your ability to calculate numbers and perceive space, and helps you move your body and manipulate objects. If you feel these functions getting foggy, try giving your parietal lobe a workout by tallying the cost of your grocery purchases in your head as you shop or calculate the time it will take you to reach a destination based on the approximate distance and driving speed.
Some people say moms have eyes in the backs of their heads, but one thing most people don’t know is that the occipital lobe is at the back of your head, and it processes sight, recognition and visual cues. And improving occipital lobe function is as easy as ABC—a 2011 study conducted at the University of Lisbon showed that literacy greatly improves object recognition and visual imagination. Reading this post is like doing push-ups for your occipital lobes; for higher-intensity training, pick up that old copy of Finnegans Wake.
The neuronal goo our brains are made of is called grey matter. It works in conjunction with white matter to create and transport impulses throughout the brain, and even though you may have heard that the brain never generates new cells, recent research has shown that not only can we retain grey and white matter, we can actually regenerate them through physical exercise. According to Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University, “as little as three hours per week of brisk walking” has been shown to reduce and sometimes reverse the natural grey matter atrophy we experience as we age.
The left brain hemisphere controls the right side of your body and is largely responsible for language skills and reasoning. Because 90 percent of people are right-handed, a roughly equivalent percentage of people have a left brain hemisphere that is larger than the right hemisphere. The exception? Ambidextrous people, who have unusually symmetric brains and a greater number of neural connections between the two sides. To give your side-to-side communication a workout and your brain a fighting chance against the world’s ambidextrous types, try doing everyday tasks, like brushing your teeth or using your computer mouse, with your non-dominant hand.
Hearing, emotion, social cues, language interpretation and visual memories are all processed in your temporal lobes, which lie behind your ears on both sides of your brain. They contain the amygdala, responsible for your ability to interact with other people and the hippocampus, responsible for storing long-term and complex memories.
Dr. Bradford C. Dickerson of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Neurology, says “amygdala volume positively correlates with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans.” For those of us who aren’t doctors, this means that the more active your social life, the better-functioning this area of your temporal lobe. So get out there and mingle. Meet a friend for a (high-nitrate) lunch date or start up a conversation with the new guy at work. Your brain (and theirs) will be fitter for it.
An interesting study in 2006 showed that London taxi drivers have larger hippocampi than the general population, thanks to the occupational necessity of remembering how to get from Point A to Point B in the city’s famously complicated roadway system.
Give your hippocampus a jog around the block by taking new routes to places you visit often. If you’re adventurous (or a cabbie in London), your brain’s memory storage will improve with each trip.