Our brains change based on what we as their owners choose to do. London cabbies, violinists, dancers, meditators: in each case their repeated practice of certain behaviors show up in their brains.
This is good news for us. It means that through deliberate, proactive practice we can change the way we think and behave. By choosing the right strategies for practicing, we can strengthen the qualities of what Brown and Fenske call “winners’ brains” in their book The Winner’s Brain. These qualities are: resilience, motivation, focus, energy, persistence, and practice.
Here are the eight strategies that Brown and Fenske put forward as the ones that can help us cultivate better brains. There is nothing radical about any of them – you will likely have seen them before in one context or another. Just because they’re familiar, though, does not mean that they are not valid. Nor does it mean that we necessarily put them to good use for ourselves!
- Self-awareness: Know your strengths and work on developing them to reach your goals. Select those goals that intrinsically motivate you because of your unique passions and drive so that you fulfill your own definition of a meaningful life.
- Emotional regulation: Thoughts and beliefs affect feelings and subsequent behaviors. What you believe about yourself and your world directly affects what you feel and how you act.
- Cognitive reframing: Repeatedly engaging in negative thoughts and actions results in undesirable brain alterations. Actively engaging in positive thoughts and actions leads to beneficial ones. You won’t always achieve your goals, but you can benefit from failure. Putting a positive spin on things changes the brain and primes it to be resilient and motivated.
- Deliberate practice: London taxi drivers train very hard to memorize city street addresses and in doing so enlarge certain areas of their brains. Musicians experience that same brain growth in other areas. We all do. The key is to keep practicing in spite of setbacks.
- Meditation: Research is conclusive on this: practicing even small doses of daily meditation can improve focus and attentional control. You don’t have to be a Zen master; sitting calmly for several minutes is a start. Longer sessions benefit the brain more.
- Physical exercise: A regular exercise program increases attentional focus, improves learning and memory, reduces impulsivity, enhances mood, and lowers stress. More blood to the brain helps provide oxygen and glucose to fuel its functioning. As little as 20 minutes of cardio exercise releases BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which support the growth of new neurons.
- Nutrition: What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Fruits and vegetables, low fat sources of protein, berries, apples, fish and omega oils all provide elements for a healthy brain.
- Sleep: Seven to eight hours of sleep are vital for optimal brain function. It helps restore the balance of communication between reasoning and emotional centers and improves memory.
Which strategies are you already strong in? Which ones offer you the most upside potential? What’s the one strategy that you could put to work to help you cultivate your winner’s brain?