Modern Life

Six strategies to supercharge your brain

How to best boost your brain power, including one or two ways you probably know about, but don’t use enough.

By Dana G. Smith — May 3, 2022

We all wish we could be a little sharper, a little quicker, or have a better memory. Like when you read a paragraph over and over again and it still doesn’t make sense. Or when you walk out of a meeting and immediately draw a blank on what the takeaway was. Or you swear you could finish that task if you could just make yourself focus.

The good news is that after decades of research, there are some science-backed ways to strengthen your cognitive abilities. The less good news: Just like with physical health, there are no hacks or shortcuts to a better mental performance. In fact, the best thing for your brain is also the best thing for the rest of your body: exerciseStudy after study shows that breaking a sweat can improve attention, memory, and overall cognition. The reason is that exercise may be the only thing that helps new neurons grow in the adult brain.

Another biggie is getting a full night’s sleep. This one is less about positive benefits and more about avoiding negative ones. Simply put, you’re never less sharp than when you’re a sleep-deprived zombie.


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Fortunately, even if you’re not exercising or sleeping quite as much as you should (though try if you can!), there are some relatively quick changes you can make to give your brain a boost. Some of these strategies actually rewire your brain to make it a little stronger and faster; others take advantage of the right tools to make things easier on your noggin. The key is tweaking your existing habits, and maybe adding a new one or two, to help you and your brain work smarter.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

We’re so used to rapidly tapping out our thoughts on keyboards or smartphones that it can seem like the devices are an extension of our thinking. But it turns out the best tool for writing is one that makes us slow down.

Research has shown that when people type up notes, the speed they gain compared to writing by hand can be disadvantageous when it comes to remembering the material. In 2014, psychologists found that college students who took notes longhand were better at remembering complicated concepts presented in a lecture than students who typed notes on a laptop. The two groups did equally well on straightforward fact-based questions, but the writers had an advantage over the typers on the more conceptual questions.

Illustration by Pete Ryan

Using simple tools, like pen and paper, can be helpful for memory retrieval.

The researchers hypothesize that because typing is faster, students working on a laptop were more likely to take down notes verbatim. In contrast, the students taking notes by hand could only summarize the lecture. But rather than that being a handicap, it led to deeper encoding and understanding of the material.

“In order to take notes in your own words, you have to think deeply enough about the content to identify what is important and how to best articulate the main points,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who led the research.

study from Japan found a similar benefit of paper notebooks over digital devices for an even simpler task: recording future events in a calendar. People who wrote down appointments on paper were more likely to remember them than those who used a tablet or smartphone to record the dates. The researchers say that people’s memory may be aided by the visual cues that paper provides —  i.e., you’re more likely to remember something if you envision it in the top left corner of the page. These types of spatial reminders are missing when you record the information digitally.

Of course, handwriting isn’t always better. If your goal is to have a verbatim transcript, then typing is your best bet. And pop-up calendar reminders on your computer or smartphone will definitely help you make it to a meeting on time. The key, Oppenheimer says, is making sure that the tool you use supports your goals.

When in doubt, print it out

Not only does paper have an advantage over digital devices when it comes to note taking and writing, it also wins out for reading. Even though we read on phones and laptops seemingly all day every day, we’re not reading the same way as when we peruse a book.

The key is to challenge your brain in the ways you want to make it stronger.

“It’s not that the medium by itself is a killer, it’s the assumptions we have about how we use that medium,” says Naomi Baron, professor emerita at American University and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio. “If you have a digital device that has internet access, you are used to using that device for a whole range of things that don’t take a lot of concentration.”

When you use your phone or laptop to jump back and forth between emails, Twitter, YouTube, and online articles, your brain becomes used to being distracted and not paying close attention to what you’re consuming. When you then try to read a technical white paper on that same device, it’s tough to switch out of that skim-and-scroll mindset.

People also tend to read faster on a screen than they do in print, which often means they’re not reading as deeply. Numerous studies have found that people are better at remembering information when they read it in a book than on a screen, especially for complicated questions. Length also seems to matter, with the largest advantage in comprehension being for texts longer than 500 words. So the next time you’re staring down a long article or legal brief, white paper, or academic work, do your brain a favor and print it out.

Just breathe

These low-tech hacks are great, but what about the days when no matter what you do, you can’t get your mind to focus? That’s when it’s time to take a break and meditate.

Meditation has been shown to help with everything from attention and memory to reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression

“It seems really simple — just sit and watch your breath — but there’s actually all these different cognitive skills that are happening at the same time while you’re doing it,” says Sara Lazar, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

There's a 2% increase in the size of the hippocampus — an area crucial for memory — in older adults after a year of exercise. Adults who didn't exercise had a 1.4% decrease.

Illustration by Pete Ryan

There's a 2% increase in the size of the hippocampus — an area crucial for memory — in older adults after a year of exercise. Adults who didn't exercise had a 1.4% decrease.

First and foremost, the act of meditation is a practice in attention. As your mind starts to wander, your cognitive control kicks in to bring your focus back to your breath. That means you have to keep monitoring your mind, something called metacognition. If your thoughts turn to an emotional topic, you get practice controlling your stress response. And keeping all this in your mind is a challenge for your working memory.

Lazar and others have found that by employing all these cognitive processes, meditation can actually rewire your brain, particularly the areas important for learning, memory, and emotion regulation. Think of meditation as a workout for your brain. Just like with physical exercise, the parts of your brain that you work the most will get bigger and stronger. Repeatedly focusing your attention, staying calm, and resisting the urge to let your mind wander will strengthen the regions responsible for those actions.

You don’t need to be a Zen master to experience the benefits of meditation. In one study, meditating 20 minutes a day for just five days lowered people’s feelings of stress and fatigue. Another study showed that two weeks of meditation training reduced students’ distracting thoughts, which helped improve their scores on the GRE. “The more you practice, the more you’re going to benefit,” Lazar says, “but even 10 minutes a day will be of some benefit.”

If you’re new to meditation, there are plenty of apps, like HeadspaceCalm, and Insight Timer, to help you get started. These programs provide helpful tips on how to focus your attention and reminders during the guided meditation sessions to bring your awareness back to your breath.

Get your game face on

What you do outside work can also boost your brainpower. For the millions of people who use computer or video games to unwind, the type of game you play could make a difference when it comes to your cognition. And no, it’s not the latest word game that has the biggest benefit. Surprisingly, it’s first- or third-person shooter games.

Shawn Green, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, says these types of games give your brain a workout by forcing it to think and react quickly. “What makes them action games is that they have really severe time constraints,” he explains. “You have to take an input and very quickly make fast responses. Often things are changing or moving quickly, so you’re having to integrate information that’s rapidly changing.”

That time pressure places a higher demand on your cognitive systems, which makes your brain work harder and eventually get better at the tasks required in the game. Green and others have found improvements among gamers in everything from basic visual abilities to higher-level cognitive processes like multitasking.

However, it’s important not to use certain shortcuts that make the game easier but don’t exercise the brain. Researchers in Canada discovered that people who navigated an action game using spatial strategies like landmarks had increased volume in the hippocampus— the brain’s primary memory center. But if they used counting or memorization to find their way around, their hippocampi were smaller.

As with meditation (and physical exercise), the key is to challenge your brain in the ways you want it to be stronger. The brain is a powerful organ that learns and grows through adulthood by forging new connections between neurons. All you have to do is give it the right tools and a little bit of practice.