Often as the new year comes around we question ‘What have I done with this year?’, then feeling as if we have achieved nothing we vow to better ourselves in the New Year by challenging your mind and learning a new skill.
‘This year I will learn Spanish’
‘This year I will read a book a month’
‘This year I will take an evening class’
Aside from commitment what does this really take? Time and energy, but also a healthy mind and strong cognitive function. For many of us, gone are the days that we would sit in classrooms and libraries for hours attempting learn. What can we do to improve our chances of completing our new year's resolution?
How does our brain work?
Research into the brain started at the beginning of time. At the start our scientific ideas were bizarre in comparison to modern knowledge. Back in years gone by it was thought that the brain was only used to maintain temperature of the heart, and the heart was capable of thought. This was followed by another bizarre idea that the brain was made of sperm. On the approach to the 17th century vast works on the brain were written. They discovered the cerebrum and cerebellum structures. This opened the door to further discoveries in the 18-21st centuries on the brain's structure .
Our brain is a hugely complex organ. It contains over 100 billion neurons. Neurons are pathways that information are passed along. Every time we learn new information or a skill a new neuron is created. However, the only role of our brain isn’t to handle and process information but also to keep us alive. We have the colloquially termed ‘old’ and ‘new’ regions of the brain for different functions.
The ‘Old’ brain is responsible for basic and autonomic functions, such as, breathing, sleep-awake cycles, temperature control and movement. Whereas, the ‘new’ brain is responsible for skills we have acquired through evolution. This includes speech, emotion, and logic [2,3]. The new brain is what we use to acquire new skills.
Long and Short term memory?
Short term memory lasts between 20 to 30 seconds . It acts alongside the 'working memory' which takes in external stimuli to process it. Short term memory isn’t always conscious, it is often used when we take in stimuli from the world around us and filter it for information. We then forget the unimportant stuff and the important stuff we refer to long term memory.
Our Long term memory is like a filing cabinet of information for retrieval at our leisure. Supposedly this can be split into 4 sections, these are
- Explicit, memory that requires conscious thought, i.e. Did I leave my straighteners on?
- Implicit, this kind is the kind of memory that requires no conscious thought, e.g riding a bike or walking.
- Autobiographical. This includes periods of time that we remember better than others. I.e we do not remember being born, but we may remember our 18th birthday.
- Memory/Morpheous. This occurs during sleep, which is used to process and consolidate information [5,6].
What Food and Supplements Can Help the brain?
There is a wealth of evidence to support the use of food and supplements to benefit cognitive health.
B Vitamins. According to the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) B Vitamins ranging from B1-12 are essential for cognitive health and function. Vitamins B9 (Folate) and B12 (Cobalamin) are linked with healthy production of nerves and neurones that promote efficient brain function. B Vitamins can be taken as a complex vitamin including B-vitamins 1-12. Or B-vitamins can be taken in via the diet. They can be found in lean meats, poultry, organ meats, yeast wholegrain cereals, dairy and some leafy green vegetables.
Iron, EFSA has also claimed that Iron contributes to the health of our cognition. Taking in our recommended daily amounts (RDA) of Iron can be beneficial to the neuronal messaging of the brain by increasing the speed and efficiency of cognition. Iron can be very difficult to absorb because of so many anti-nutrients (tannins, calcium, pytates). Iron can be taken on its own in supplement form to bypasses the antinutrients. Iron can also be found in red meats, legumes, nuts, green leafy vegetables and broccoli.
Omega 3 and 6, a major component of the brain is lipid. Studies have shown that Omega 3 components DHA ( Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentanoic acid) improve ‘cognitive performance and functional brain processes’ .
Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng are the most popular supplements for cognitive health and increasing our ability to learn. Ginkgo Biloba is a native Chinese plant. Its active ingredients include Ginkgolides and Bilobalides, among others. It boosts cognitive function by increasing circulations to the brain. This has been shown to increase cognitive function and performance. Ginseng has very similar properties to Ginkgo. Ginseng is also commonly referred to as the Asian Panax Ginseng. The active Ginsenosides improve nutrient metabolism for energy. By doing so it provides more energy for the brain's function. In addition, it acts as an adaptogen, this means that it can keep the brain and body calm in stressful biological and physilogical conditions.
Tips for Learning
There are a few simple tips that can boost learning:
- Information is best taken in when connected to another memory, e.g. connecting words with recognisable images. E.g the Spanish word for apple “manzana’, paired with the image of an apple.
- Take breaks in your learning every hour.
- Learn information in chunks/categories. Overloading the memory can have an adverse effect. Supposedly the ‘magic number’ is 7, which means we learn best in chunks of 7.
- Choose something that interests and motivates you to learn.
- Set a goal for your skill, e.g I will have read 8 books by July.
- Get others involved in your new skill, sometimes it's good to have others to test you or be competitive with.
- Stanford Education. (2007). A History of the Brain. Available: https://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/brainpages/brain.html
- Escott-Stump.S. (2015). 4: Neurosychiatric Conditions . In: Joyce, J and Malakoff-Klein, E Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care. 8th ed. Philadelphia: Walters-Kluwer. Pg. 228-235.
- Serendip. (2016). Brain Structures and their Functions. Available: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/kinser/Structure1.html.
- Richard C. Mohs "How Human Memory Works" 8 May 2007. Availlable
- Cowan. N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?. Progress in Brain Research. 169 (3), Pg.323-338.
- Brain HQ. (2016). Types of Memory. Available: http://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/memory/types-of-memory.
- Bauer.I, et-al. (2014). Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults.. Human Psychopharmacology. 29 (2), Pg. 133-144.