I’ll give you a hint: it’s about letting go.
What? But, wait, doesn’t mind power require focused genius and amazing effort? You mean we can stop pushing, caffeinating, and ripping through life?
Here are some powerful, and perhaps unexpected, ways to become smarter, clearer, more creative and innovative, and–who knows?–more successful and happy while we’re at it. Science of the mind is showing us that letting go begets a better mind.
Letting Go Strategies that Power Up the Mind
That’s right–focus on what you are grateful for. The Heartmath Institute researchers have shown that by cultivating the emotional experience of appreciation we instantly shift our physiologies in beneficial ways. Their Heart-Focused Breathing technique creates physiological coherence–a harmonious state of cooperation and energetic alignment between the heart, mind, and emotions. This resonant relationship leads to greater stress resilience, more engaged attention, and improved cognitive abilities. As expected, the benefits expand beyond improved mind capabilities–they have also shown that this practice leads to healthier heart function, lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and improved general health.
The Heart-Focused Breathing technique: 1) Focus on your heart: Move your attention to your heart area–place your hand over your heart to assist you. Breathe deeply in and out. Let go. 2) Breathe into your heart: imagine that you are breathing in and out through your heart. Feel the energy of your breath in the center of your chest. 3) Cultivate appreciation: Now, think of someone or something you are grateful for. This can be a memory from the past or something or someone you love–a person, thing, or pet. Feel the expansion of gratitude or appreciation within your heart as you continue to breathe in and out there. Spend a few minutes with this. This heart-focused exercise can be used as an instant problem-solving tool by optimizing the neurological inputs from the heart to the brain that result in positive brain engagement
Do just one thing at a time.
That’s right, stop multi-tasking. Just do your email. Just drive. Just grocery shop. Just write. Just create. Just engage in conversation. Get what I mean? Scientists have shown us in umpteen ways now that we are serial-taskers, not multi-taskers. The more we try to do at once, no matter how seemly small the tasks, the less proficient and efficient we are–the dumber we are. We get more done of higher quality when we do them just one at a time.
We can meditate in the traditional seated style or we can do other things that pull us out of our ordinary lives, allowing us to focus on just one thing, in this present moment, like walking in nature, mowing the lawn, or doing laundry. The point is to be fully present to the task, letting go of all other concerns. To let your mind just be and to be present in your body. The science on meditation is huge–with a regular meditation or mindfulness practice, we become less stressed, more competent, more creative and inventive, and we go about our lives with more intention and clarity.
Sleep long, deep, and at night.
We all know that sleep deprivation makes us really stupid, really tired, and sometimes dangerous (trust me, I know–I was a medical intern!). But our corporate, achievement-oriented culture encourages us to plow ahead, giving us credit for long work hours and self-care-sacrifice–all to our detriment. The cultural imperative to sacrifice sleep for the sake of longer hours in production mode is just wrong. Most adults need eight to nine hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep, that occurs at night (in keeping with our innate circadian rhythm), every day–to stay safe and on top of their cognitive game. Good sleep has global positive impacts on our bodies’ function through improved detoxification of the brain, enhanced energy production, and optimized hormonal and stress responses. All this leads to a healthier, more resilient, and better mind.
Eliminate food irritants.
Yes, we are exactly what we eat–our brains are what we eat. Foods that trigger inflammation will harm our brains, hindering mood, memory, and cognitive ability. Food irritants can be present in the total absence of gut-related symptoms, so don’t let this fool you.
What foods should you look out for? 1) Sugar–all sugar sources, including table sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, starchy vegetables, fruit, and–most especially–high-fructose corn syrup; 2) Grains–especially processed grains (just another form of sugar), but also whole grains can be problems as well, including wheat varieties, corn, rice, rye, barley, spelt, and amaranth; 3) Animal milk products–this includes yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, ice cream, and food replacement products that contain whey or casein, 4) Eggs, 5) Beans and legumes; 6) Nuts; 7) Artificial sweeteners; and 8) Food preservatives. How to know for sure which ones are a problem for you? Take them all out of your diet for a few weeks and observe. Add back one food group at a time and see what happens. This gets tricky and complicated–consider working with a Functional Medicine practitioner to help you navigate this.
Eat healthy fat.
Our brains are made up of mostly fat. We need the right ones–those that create healthy brain cells and promote brain connections–leading to improved cognitive function. Unhealthy fats are toxic, can kill brain cells by producing inflammation and oxidative stress.
Include healthy fat at every meal: avocados and avocado oil, coconut cream and coconut oil, MCT (medium-chained triglycerides) oil, olives and olive oil, omega-3 fats from fatty fish and pasture-raised meat, and ghee (unless cow’s milk sensitive).
Avoid: vegetable oils, commercially-raised animal products, and rancid oils and fat-containing foods (you’ll know by their characteristic smell).
Move your body.
Neuroscience shows us that the development of movement and cognition occur together, sharing similar brain regions, and have a reciprocal effect on one another. Movement enhances neuroplasticity–how our brains increase their connections and expand their potential. It has been unequivocally shown that adults who exercise with moderate intensity, such as brisk walking, improve their brains and cognitive abilities through increases in brain integrity and volume, reduced brain atrophy, increased prefrontal cortex (intellectual functions) and hippocampal (memory) volume, improved memory and executive function, and increased brain network connectivity. Moderate intensity exercise lowers our risk for dementia.
Many of us do our best thinking when walking–especially that full letting-go kind of walking with arms swinging widely in opposition to legs. This has been scientifically validated by a recent Stanford study that demonstrated a huge and universal enhancement of creative thinking skills in adults who walked. This effect was observed in many settings: when subjects walked and talked, walked in nature, or walked indoors on a treadmill.
There is a large body of scientific literature that confirms the positive effects of yoga on the brain–with improvements in mood, memory, and cognitive abilities. In one study just eight weeks of Hatha yoga done three times weekly resulted in profound improvements in both memory and cognitive skills in older adults, compared to a group who engaged in just standard stretching and strengthening. Hatha yoga, the most common yoga tradition practiced in the US, combines series of postures and movements with breath awareness and control. The coordination of breath with movement and intensity integrates resources of body, mind, and spirit, leading to calm engagement, down regulation of the stress response, improvements in mood and cognitive performance, lowered perceived stress, and increasing energy.
for easy printing and sharing!
Adam Moore, Peter Malinowski. Meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2009) 176-186.
Neva J Kirk-Sanchez, et al. Physical exercise and cognitive performance in the elderly: current perspectives. Clin Interv Aging. 2014.
Gerry Leisman, et al. Thinking, Walking, Talking: Integratory Motor and Cognitive Brain Function. Front Public Health. 2016 May 25.
Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz. Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. J Exper Psych: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 2014, vol 40, no. 4, 1142-1152.
Neha P. Gothe, et al. The Effects of an 8-Week Hatha Yoga Intervention on Executive Function in Older Adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2014 Sep; 69 (9): 1109-1116.
KARYN SHANKS MD
Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.