Saturday, 25 September 2010

The brain is a muscle. Learn how to train it.

In a conversation recently in my lab, I was amazed to find that the majority of the honours and PhD students there were into exercise in a big way. It didn't seem to make sense: after all aren't scientists meant to be wimpy geeks with glasses who get shoved around by the big, hulking gridiron players?

But then I realised: of course they're into sport! The very reason why they're in this lab, having achieved great marks to get there, is because they know something most people don't: the brain is a muscle.

In a lot of people, the brain is sadly underdeveloped. Neglected for years, it is a floppy, weak excuse for a lifting device. They couldn't raise a mental barbell if they tried. 

And why is this? It's not because these people are inherently stupid. No-one is born with vein-popping neuro-muscularity. The reason why the scientists in my lab are good at sport is the same reason they're good at science: they know how to train.

Training the brain
Focus is hard. I'm sure you've experienced this when trying to learn something difficult or when writing a long report. Of course it's hard. Focus is an endurance sport. Just like for marathon running, you have to train your brain to allow it to carry you for 42.195km. And it will hurt! But pain is a good thing. Embrace it, because your brain will emerge stronger for the experience.

One staple workout for fast runners is intervals. Learn what they are and apply them to your brain.

Interval training
Runners are a masochistic bunch. At least once a week, top runners will go to a track and flog themselves, sometimes to the point of vomiting. It hurts like nothing else, but once the leg soreness dies away, these runners will be a lot faster for the workout.

Interval training involves breaking hard efforts up with short breaks. You should do the same with study or any mentally taxing exercise. Break the task up into 30 minute intervals and sprint.

Give it everything you have! Make it hurt because you've got the break coming up. One more lap (one more page)! Aah, that's it. Doesn't it feel good to stop?

But don't pause too long. Get back on track. You've got 7 more intervals to go. Tie your shoelaces, take a deep breath and PUSH.

By the end, you will be staggering around, a sweaty, dishevelled shell of a human. But look how much you got done! Go home and have a sleep. You've earned it, and you'll need it!

Use it or lose it
Like all muscles, the brain is fickle. You're climbing a down escalator here, and as soon as you stop running, you'll start heading downhill again. Train your brain every day and make it challenging. Remember, if it doesn't hurt, then you're not improving.

*Apologies to the anatomists, who winced every time I wrote "the brain is a muscle"

1 comment:

Ben said...

I completely agree with this. I know a lot of people who are doing 'simple' jobs and are just content with doing that. But they are still smart people, I think what they don't realise is that they are capable of using their brain in such a way.

You are right, using your brain is hard. It's exhausting actually. I find that using my brain solidly for a week exhausts me in a similar way that intense physical exercise does. But never the less, I love it.