10 science-backed ways to improve brain power for study, work and focus

improve brain power
The human brain is one of the most complex and fascinating organs in your body. Source: Mauricio Lima/AFP

Science now tells us our brains can change — which means we can improve brain power.

This development is crucial as it’s a shift from previous beliefs that we’re stuck with the brain we’re born with.

This body organ is unlike a computer or smartphone. If you currently have the iPhone 12, what you can do with an iPhone 12 never changes.

But the brain can level up or down — if it now has the power of an iPhone 12, your brain can boosted to have the power of the latest iPhone.

Thus, if you can do things to change your brain, as did someone who was brain-damaged from a one-week coma, that means you can improve your brain power.

This ability is known as “neuroplasticity,” an ongoing condition that underlies the brain’s ability to learn throughout our lives.

Science wasn’t this optimistic a century ago.

Old science says we can’t improve brain power

In the 1920s, the so-called founder of modern neuroscience Santiago Ramon y Cajal wrote that our brains go into decline soon after we were born:

“In adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”

Not only were you stuck with the adult brain, but that it will go into decline as you grow older.

If you get a stroke, or damage your brain in any other way, you can only help the surviving parts of the brain work around it. The consensus that the brain was not plastic persisted until the 1960s.

Then, two American neuroscientists found that the brain contains “maps” of the body and the outside world with the ability to change and that blind people could “see” in a new and radically different way.

By the 1990s, the science that the adult brain is plastic started gaining mass credibility.

“What we do know is that almost everything we do, all our behaviour, thoughts and emotions, physically change our brains in a way that is underpinned by changes in brain chemistry or function,” says Ian Robertson, the founding director of Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience to BBC.

“There’s virtually no disease or injury, I believe, where the potential doesn’t exist for very intelligent application of stimulation to the brain via behaviour, possibly combined with other stimulation.”

All of this means it’s even more possible to change ourselves or our environment to improve brain power for study, work and focus.

10 ways to improve brain power for study, work and focus

1. Improve brain power by eating well

We are what we eat. If you eat garbage, you’ll feel like garbage.

Everything that we put into our body can affect how we feel, how much we can do and how long we can live. It can also decrease or improve brain power.

“Brain food” can do a lot — but differs according to who you ask.

“Seafood, greens, nuts and beans — and a little dark chocolate,” Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, told The New York Times.

Add these — plus spices, herbs and fermented foods — and you’ll notice a difference in how you feel. The better you feel, the better you’ll study, work and focus.

But what about memory? Look for brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like broccoli, blueberries, red peppers and aubergines.

Don’t forget cumin seeds and black pepper too — Ayurveda says it boosts our mind’s processes.

A note of caution: while nutrition studies are hard to carry out but there is a growing body of research that suggests some foods and diets can help an ageing brain.

Another new contender that could improve brain power is the keto diet, where fats make up 90% of your daily calories.

A study by the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) showed that this diet was previously used to treat epilepsy and other neurocognitive diseases.

“These enzymes protect the brain from cell loss and improve brain function,” says UC Davis molecular exercise physiologist Keith Baar.

He is also a professor in the Departments of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior and of Physiology and Membrane Biology.

Here are some of the key foods in the keto diet:

  • Oily fish, like salmon, anchovies, sardines, and mackerel
  • Cheese, like cheddar, feta, cream cheese and cottage cheese
  • Nuts and seeds, like almond, walnuts, pumpkin seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Berries
  • Butter and cream
improve brain power

Physical exercise is important for a healthy body and mind. Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

2. Improve brain power by exercising

To live a long and healthy life, you need to stay active.

Just physical exercise stimulates the body, it also heightens the brain’s executive function, which deals with planning, organising, and multitasking.

When you exercise, the increased blood flow in your body delivers more oxygen, fuel, and nutrients to the brain simultaneously.

Scientific research shows exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of substance in the body.

The BDNF encourages the growth, communication, and survival of neurons.

And you don’t really need to be doing a hardcore workout that will leave you feeling sore for days.

A single simple workout can already help you improve the ability to focus and shift attention, says Wendy Suzuki.

The Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the New York University Center for Neural Science is also a strong advocate that exercise can stimulate new brain cells.

improve brain power

It’s important to keep your mind stimulated and present to improve brain power. Source: Fethi Belaid/AFP

3. Improve brain power through mental stimulation

Older research on mice has shown brain activities conducted were able to stimulate new connections between nerve cells.

Anything that mentally stimulates has the ability to generate new brain cells, develop neurological plasticity, and build up a reserve against future cell loss.

So, try reading, do a puzzle, solve a math problem, grab your Sudoku book, and get started or even pick up a stencil to draw or paint.

At the end of the day, there’s one takeaway from this is – the more active your brain is, the higher your brain power will be.

improve brain power

Getting enough sleep or rest allows our bodies to replenish themselves for the next day. Source: Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP

4. Improve brain power by having enough rest

Perhaps when we were younger, we thought it was cool to stay up all night and hang out with friends or binge-watch a TV series.

But you definitely would have felt the repercussions of that the next day.

Sleeping or resting is a two-way relationship between the body and the brain.

Millions of people suffer from sleep disorders, but now research has identified how crucial it is for our bodies to be able to follow a cycle of rest and activity.

Setting a regular wake-sleep schedule that will give you seven to eight hours of proper rest each night is important to increase brain power, says Phyllis C. Zee.

She is Chief of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“This means sleep is regulated by our bodies at the cellular and molecular level,” she says.

Without enough regular sleep, our brain gets foggy — when that happens, it impairs the brain’s system that supports perception, memory, attention, decision-making and learning.

improve brain power

Playing video games is known to stimulate the brain while helping to keep it sharper. Source: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

5. Improve brain power by playing video games

In a study of almost 2,000 children, the US National Institution of Health found that those who played video games for three hours a day did better on cognitive tests involving impulse control.

Their memory was also better compared to non-players.

In another ground-breaking study, medical video games were found to boost competence and clinical-decision making skills for busy physicians.

Medical video games were more stimulating, engaging, and enjoyable, says Dr. Eric Gantwerker, Vice President of Level EX, the company behind the study.

“This study revealed game-based learning increases knowledge attainment, transfer, and retention to show these findings also extend to practising physicians, regardless of age.”

6. Improve brain power through meditation

The effects of meditation and how it can improve brain power have been scientifically proven over the decades.

When a person meditates, brain scans show increased activity in regions that affect anxiety, depression, and pain tolerance.

What this means is that meditators can handle these negative emotions better when it happens.

These frequencies can be measured by the Alpha waves, which are higher in meditators.

Another study revealed that long-term meditation impacted the “white matter” in people’s brains.

White matter relays sensory information, which helps people stay in the present as well as combat cognitive declines in older people.

improve brain power

Group activities make us happier and can improve brain power. Source: Ezra Shaw/ Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

7. Improve brain power by socialising

As a student or at work, you’re surrounded by classmates and colleagues that you regularly meet up with, share a meal and do activities with.

Keep doing these — being around these people can improve your brain power.

A University of Queensland study found that people who took part in group activities experienced a reduction in mental decline and memory loss.

The study also revealed that engaging in a group setting was more important than doing a solo activity, and it became more evident as their age increased.

Participants with above-average social group ties performed better mentally, says Professor Catherine Haslam, School of Psychology, University of Queensland.

“50-year-olds were performing like 46-year-olds, while 80-year-olds performed more like 70-year-olds.”

8. Improve brain power with vitamins and micronutrients

For those who have embraced the vegan lifestyle, paleo diets, or even gluten-free, you’re losing out on vitamins and nutrients every day.

Supplements can help. Vitamins that come under the B group are said to be effective to improve brain power.

Depression, mental impairment, and dementia are a result of deficits in these vitamins, says Rajaprabhakaran Rajarethinam, a faculty member from Harvard Medical School.

“A B12 vitamin deficiency as a cause of cognitive issues is more common than we think, especially among the elderly who live alone and don’t eat properly,” he says.

Other supplements that can boost brain power include fish oils, caffeine, creatine and others.

improve brain power

Looking after your blood vessels and health will directly affect your brain health. Source: Paul J. Richards/AFP

9. Improve brain power by keeping your blood vessels healthy

If you didn’t know, brain health is closely linked to heart health.

By keeping your heart healthy, you are directly lowering the risk to your brain and other conditions possible.

So how do you improve brain power through your heart?

It’s simple, just ensure you aren’t practising things that will cause your heart health to deteriorate.

This includes the obvious ones, controlling blood pressure, limiting alcohol, not smoking, staying active and getting any kind of health condition under control immediately.

If you think you are too young to be worrying about this, think again. Research has shown high blood pressure in young adults had significant brain changes by their midlife.

So, now would be a good time to start looking after the blood vessels in your brain.

10. Improve brain power by training your brain

At the beginning of the article, we said that your brain can change and be trained regardless of how old you are.

By the time you are an adult, your brain will have formed millions of neural pathways that make you unique.

However, if you stick to your regular and routine ways, there will be no room to grow or develop any further.

And don’t forget, your brain is the most complex thing in the universe. It has so much potential to do more than you could imagine.

As Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt once said, the human mind, by dint of language, can make “infinite use of finite means.”

Try learning a new language, taking up guitar lessons, mastering pottery, or get dancing.

Whatever it is you want to do, make sure you enjoy doing it. This will increase the dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. The more you like it, the more you’ll do it — what better way to improve brain power?