Photo: Robert Snache
In our society, winning means someone has to lose and who wants to be a loser?
When it comes to developing our intellectual and creative capacities, the message we get from colonial society is that it’s an individualized and competitive process. The aim is to be smarter than others; to “get ahead”. You are urged to achieve the best grades, go to the best schools and win the highest accolades. This entitles you to high-paying jobs and the status that goes with. If you’re clever enough to beat out the competition you’ll be recognized and honoured. From Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey, mainstream cultural icons are seen as cleverer, smarter, and certainly “better” in some way than the rest of us.
In our society, winning means someone has to lose and who wants to be a loser? To be a winner in the mental arena you must improve personal habits that will assist you in training your brain to outshine others. With modern technology we are learning how much adequate sleep, exercise, healthy eating, hydration, deep breathing, mindfulness practices (like meditation), brain training, mental stimulation, and cultivating a positive mindset all improve mental processes. However, most of the new information is still framed within the notion of aspiring to rise above the masses.
Unfortunately, the very idea of seeing yourself as separate from others with whom you must compete, particularly if the stakes are high, actually creates stress. And stress damages the brain. Furthermore, self-absorption leaves you with LESS—not more—problem solving, critical thinking, and creative abilities.
The notion of “better than” is also not so great for society. Many researchers, such as those at the Greater Good Science Centre, have shown that people who enjoy high social status are also more likely to behave in anti-social ways and display lower rates of compassion, generosity, kindness, and a general lack of concern with the wellbeing of others. It’s further clear that the more one practices these behaviours, the more the brain reshapes itself to accommodate them.
The good news is that there are other, less individualized practices that boost your brainpower. They are aligned with many of our cultural teachings that emphasize community, cooperation and other pro-social behaviours. Fortunately, caring and sharing also enhance mental capacities while making the world a better place for everyone. Here are some examples:
1. Develop a sense of purpose that will give meaning to your life and work. Knowing that what you do makes the world a better place floods your bloodstream with biochemicals that expand your higher thinking, problem solving, and creative capacities.
2. Cultivate relationships with people from diverse social locations: different ethnicities, genders, and life experiences—the more different the better. Even someone you disagree with can charge your brain and sharpen your critical thinking. Strike a balance between spending time with like-minded folks that offer support, and validation with people who challenge you—in safe ways.
3. Help others empower themselves and achieve their goals. If you can’t help, get out of the way. The more people who surround you that function at a higher level, the better for you; the better for all of us because it raises the playing field.
4. Shed ideas about superiority and inferiority. You can feel unique (you ARE unique) without comparing yourself to others or striving to dominate. Let go of ideas that create a sense of separation, and embrace notions of connection and inter-dependence. If competition gets you motivated, keep the stakes low. Or compete with your personal best. Not only will you be happier, you’ll be more productive.
5. Laugh and smile. Smiling counters the stress-reaction while improving memory, learning, alertness, and creativity. It also calms the heart, boosts immunity, lowers blood pressure, and oxygenates the blood—while increasing endorphin, serotonin, and dopamine levels. As a bonus it lifts the spirits of those who receive your smile. Laughing gives you all of the above plus exercises your abdominals while creating a shared sense of connection.
6. Heal yourself. Our cultural healing practices and ceremonies reverse the damage caused by stress and allow us the space to safely feel whatever comes up. Suppressing negative memories, thoughts, and emotions only causes more stress. When it comes to working through pain and enhancing mental capacities, our varied healing practices are actually quite sophisticated and are the envy of modern science.
7. Share and accept what others offer with an open heart. Sharing counters the damage caused by stress. It also correlates with increased trust and happiness while generating connection—all of which enhance your mental abilities.
8. Teach, tutor, mentor, and role model. Not only will you be contributing to a better world, you’re bound to learn something new and expand your capacities.
9. Listen deeply. Listening soothes another’s fear, which has been seen and measured in brain scans. Once the fear cools down, the higher thinking areas of the brain can become active. If you want someone’s cooperation, input, or agreement you’re much more likely to get it by taking time to sincerely listen to them. Then you can have a peaceful, reasoned exchange of ideas.
10. Surround yourself with nature, objects from nature or views of nature that lift your spirits. Inspiration and positive feelings expand and enhance your mental abilities
11. If you like animals, get a pet. Caring for a pet stimulates the production of biochemicals that improve your cognitive abilities. Also, pets give you an excuse to laugh every day.
12. Connect with ancestors, in whatever way makes sense to you. In one study, just thinking about ancestors improved memory and other cognitive skills. Researchers are still trying to understand why.
13. Practice kindness, generosity, and compassion for all life. Besides enhancing your mental capacities these practices boost your immune system, accelerate healing, counter stress, reverse aging, energize you, and feel great. They also reshape and expand your brain. The more you practice, the more you enhance your mental capacities in into an upward-spiraling effect called “brain brightening”.