So it’s back to school time and some of you students may be excited to be back amongst your friends, some of you may be facing the prospect of critical exams, some of you may be dreading it, and some may find the whole school thing pretty tedious (I won’t say where I fell on this scale in my youth because my 13-year-old daughter might get to read this).

So, let’s face it you may have had various study methods drilled into you, you parents may be pushy, they may not be (mine were teachers also – a bit of a pain I admit). But certainly, you would like to get more done in less time and get your brain to operate better and blast through those classes. Well, I can’t promise all of that, but I can tell you how the brain operates best, which has become my field of expertise over the last 20 years. You’ll also be happy to read that some of the best things in life are actually best for the brain: making friends, daydreaming, sleeping, telling jokes, fantasising, and being mischievous, are all fantastic ways to build your brain. Let me take you through some of them:

  1. The art of doing nothing
    Your parents and teachers may not like the idea of this. And to be honest it is not a carte blanche – you do have to do something. Let’s understand how the brain operates: the brain operates in waves of activity. There are waves within milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, daily, and also seasonally. The brain is designed to have intensive on periods and just as intensive off periods. It is the off periods where your brain builds the connections and refines the connections that it builds during the on periods. This is the same as sports training – recovery is just as important as the training itself. I am, therefore, you may be sad to discover, not proposing you do nothing but that you intersperse periods of hard work with periods of nothingness. These include:
    • Daydreaming, also known as mind wandering, is when the brain enters into something called the default mode network. This is highly connected brain state when your brain casually works through multiple inputs, memories, and data stored in your head, secretly making connections that you may not be able to formulate. It is no wonder that we have our best ideas when not focusing on solving problems.
      This helps with: memory consolidation, problem solving, creativity, innovation
    • Sleep: obviously sleep is important but when we look at the research, we will see just how important. Sleep does three things 1. Detoxifies the brain, 2. builds new connections (i.e. grows), and 3. Consolidates and works through emotions. 
      The majority of brain growth happens during sleep so cut out on this you are cutting down on your brain to learn, grow and build new connections. 

Sleep is critical for: memory consolidation, problems solving, lowering stress, mental health, creativity, innovation, physical health

  • Smartphones do not replace “doing nothing”: yes, we all love our smartphones and when we go onto them and aimlessly wander through our social media jungle, we may feel we are not doing something constructive and it therefore counts for “time out”. Unfortunately, it does not. Your mind is flitting through external distractions and gets even more input. Sorry to say. Put your smartphone down for periods of the day and let yourself daydream, or doodle, or just get bored – it will do your brain a big favour. Similarly, smartphones before sleep tend to disrupt sleep patterns. A good old-fashioned book helps your brain more.
  • Draw pictures and doodle: and no, you don’t need to be artistic. Drawing has been shown to be good for the brain and stimulates holistic thinking and connections. Drawing a graphical or pictorial representation of your learning has been shown to be more effective than writing a summary (which in itself is a better way than reading through notes) for memory recall and content learning. Doodling may be a sign of boredom, superficially at least, but research shows that it improves memory retention, even when the doodler found the content boring! More than that it also boosts creativity – so get your pen or pencil out, or electronic pen, and get yourself doodling!
  • Have fun and play: yes, you obviously should have fun. At school, at home and everywhere else. If you’re having fun you are lowering stress hormones, and releasing all sorts of other positive chemicals and hormones. Though short-term stress has been shown to increase memory – think of a shock event – long-term stress is incredibly disruptive and can become toxic to the brain. 

Play may sound non-serious to many adults but involves multiple complex processes in the brain. I am not referring to gaming (though some research has also shown positive benefits here) – but structured and unstructured play, in games, sports (see below), and simply “playing around”. In fact, play is one of the best ways to build multiple complex cognitive networks in the brain! See blog here.

  • Do stuff but have a lot of breaks: yes, so you do have to do stuff. Your brain responds to input, so you need to stimulate it and get input. In short you have to work and pay attention, but that can also be fun. High stimulation normally means high learning. But as we now know, your brain needs breaks, preferably lots of them. In fact, it is better to have a break, before you feel like a break. If you feel like a break your brain is already getting tired and may have started on a downward spiral. I have seen many students plan and do monster revision or learning session before exams. It is much better to split these up and intersperse them with pleasant activity
  • Read books: reading novels has been shown to do many things. It improves language, and vocabulary, for example, but interestingly also improves various other cognitive abilities such as empathy, theory of mind of mind (ability to predict what other people can see or think), and imagination. You may also be interested to hear that reading real books, yes, those things made out of paper, is actually better than electronic books – we have better memory retention. This is assumed to be through tactile input and structuring the information we come across better. I read a lot on my tablet, it’s practical, but also try to read real books from time to time. 
  • Move and exercise: some neuroscientists claim that the primary function of the brain is to move the body. What we do know is that movement and exercise has incredibly benefits on human beings – in fact compared to other animals our need to move is much higher. Gorillas for example do not suffer much consequences from having long periods sitting down – human beings on the other hand suffer severely. Movement increases blood flow to all your muscles not to mention your brain. But the stimulus is actually much larger than expected. Scores on cognitive games can be improved by doing them with exercise. Stress is lowered. And creativity and innovation is increased – simply walking is one of the simplest and best forms of exercises. The 10’000-step rule has been drilled into us in recent years (though lacking a scientific basis) and it is true – though 12’000 or 16’000 would be better. Studying for an important exam – take a short walk every 30-45 minutes – it will improve your cognitive ability, memory consolidation and lower stress and increase health. That’s pretty good for a simple, free activity, that can be done just about anywhere.
  • For procrastinators –procrastinators like myself it can be easy to put off stuff until the last minute. Particularly those big important things. The simplest tip here is to find the easiest way to start. Instead of saying I will start revision for that big test/exam, why not say “I’ll just flick though my books and see what I should revise or not”. Once you’ve started flickering through you’ve broken your procrastination cycle and it will be easy to keep going or make the next step. The easy and lower energy the first step the more likely you will be to do it.

So, in summary the brain is designed to do stuff in waves of activity, and we would all do well to attend to this. Some of the things that we may consider trivial such as drawing, doodling, and playing are actually very complex brain interactions which help us perform and are more natural way of the brain operating – use these to your advantage. Your brain will thank you, you will feel better, and your grades will likely jump while you feel like you’re doing less. I hope so at least – they certainly work for me in the world of business.