Neuroscience: five ways to brain peak performance

posted by Jeremy Hazlehurst
6 December 2019

Five ways to help your brain to peak performance

Seven hours minimum
“If you don’t get enough sleep it hits you in three ways,” says Webb. “First, it really reduces your analytical capacity: you are not so smart, and you make poorer choices. When you are seriously short of sleep, the cognitive impairment is at a similar level to being drunk. 

“Second, it is much harder to regulate your emotions. People who are short of sleep react more intensely so they’ll get more upset at things their brain perceives as danger. 

“Thirdly, sleep is crucial for learning and processing what has happened that day. Not getting enough sleep is like going to bed without saving a document you’ve been working on.” We all need between seven and nine hours a night, she adds – so make sure you’re hitting the hay in good time.

Eat brain food
Individuals in stressful jobs all-too-often rely on caffeine to stay alert, and can end up drinking alcohol at the end of the day to relax. That might offer a short-term boost but it’s bad for the brain in the long term. A nutrient-rich diet, proper hydration and the bare minimum of caffeine and alcohol gives your brain what it needs to keep working well. 

Simply drinking more water can have a big effect. Studies have found that giving thirsty people a drink before asking them to perform mental tasks significantly increases their cognitive performance. It is widely accepted that the best diet for the brain is rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, olive oil and oily fish and involves very little red meat. 

Practice mindfulness
It might be trendy, but it’s not some daft fad. Giving your brain a chance to slow down and switch off reduces the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and allows your rational brain to come back online. “The best way to do it is to use an app such as Headspace or Calm, and just put the earphones in and listen to the voice. Lots of evidence shows that 12 minutes a day most days of the week is enough,” says Swart. “If you do it regularly for two or three months, then it actually increases folds in the outer cortex of the brain, which allows the more rational system to modify the more instinctive system better. It improves the interaction between logic and emotion,” she adds. 

Know your stresses
Being aware of your mental state can be hugely helpful. The fact of acknowledging that you are stressed, for instance, can reduce the stress and help your thinking become more ordered. This is known as ‘affect labelling’. 

“One hypothesis about why it works is that it’s telling your brain: ‘Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand that there’s an incoming problem. I’ve got it’,” says Webb. She likens the stress reactions to an alarm clock, and noticing those reactions switches off the alert. 

“If you do nothing else, learn your behavioural patterns so you can catch yourself more quickly. You can recenter yourself, label what’s going on then reset and refocus on the big picture. That is a hell of a life skill,” she adds. 

Embrace monotasking
Some people believe they can do it all. They can’t. Studies clearly show that the brain can only perform one task at a time: in reality, we flip from concentrating on one thing to another. A study of Microsoft employees found that when they were interrupted, it took them 15 minutes to refocus on what they were doing. Just three interruptions an hour means you never give your full attention to anything. And the refocusing itself takes lots of energy and depletes your brain, giving you even less of that precious deliberative time. 

Pinging, buzzing devices are tempting because getting a message or a retweet gives your brain a little rush of dopamine, which it craves. The solution? Turn off the distracting devices and block out 90 minutes to buckle down to one job. Some people even put a “do not disturb” sign on their desk. When you’ve done your time, give yourself a treat, and an endorphin blast. 

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