Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Feed Your Brain

Children have lots of study to do but are rarely shown effective study techniques, let alone how to study without stress. As an ex- school teacher, academic and a life long student, I've spent a great deal of time refining my study habits to make them not only effective, but good for my health! I've also spent time teaching myself learning skills such as speed-reading and improving my memory and note taking skills using mind maps and another technique a friend of mine taught me called CapMaps. The little bit of time I've spent learning these techniques has been repaid many times over. I now teach these skills to my students, pensioner groups and corporate executives.
So to begin, let's get rid of words like home work and make it home play. We'll do a whole lot more and a lot more easily if we enjoy doing it, so let's make it as pleasurable as possible - starting with the words we use.
To study effectively you need good health and a good blood supply. Your brain uses more than 20 per cent of your body's energy, so it has to have the right nutrients all the time. When you study, don't scrunch up over the desk. It stops you breathing deeply and slows oxygen getting to your brain. Remember to stretch frequently, put your shoulders back and take a deep breath. This will help feed your brain.

Food for Thought

A nourishing diet is essential to give your brain the right nutrition and will increase your levels of concentration. Even small decreases in glucose can cause significant "brain fog", while shortages of antioxidants and excess bad fats lead to short-term and long-term memory problems. Not good for study. Here are some useful pointers to ensuring you eat well to make your study time effective:

* Eat breakfast. It provides glucose for your brain. In fact, not eating breakfast causes you to be 20 - 40 per cent "dumber" in studying and exams. People who don't eat breakfast also put on more weight and are unhealthier than people who do.  Raw muesli or porridge with nuts is a terrific way to fire up your brain. Add a piece of chopped fruit. Don't add sugar, but add as much fruit and crushed nuts and seeds as you like. Or maybe even an old fashioned cooked breakfast with some tomato, mushroom, spinach and beans thrown in.
* Don't eat and study at the same time. Take a break. Focus on one task at a time.
* In between meals nibbling on raw (not cooked) nuts and dried fruit will feed your brain. Leave the chocolate for after the exams and forget the potato chips.
* Decrease bad oils including butter and margarine, oils in bread and greasy foods such as takeaways. They block your arteries and thicken your blood, slowing the amount of fuel getting to your brain (ie oxygen and glucose). They also contribute to some long-term damage in the brain.
* Decrease sugar and processed foods. They create a short-term glucose high in the blood and a long-term glucose low, causing foggy thinking.
* Increase good oils high in Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and include fish oils and flaxseed. Sixty per cent of your healthy brain is made up of fats and these EFAs are the biggest part.  Good fats = good thinking. They provide the building blocks for the brain, the infrastructure for you to be smarter.
* Increase dark green vegetables such as spinach, silver beet, broccoli and bok choy. They provide essential vitamins and minerals for your brain to function and think clearly. One study found better memory results from eating greens. They put muscles in your brain.
* Eliminate over processed grain products.  Eat only wholegrain and wholemeal grains; they contain essential minerals and vitamins for your brain. Rye bread gives you the lowest sugar hit. Even better go for the new range of sprouted breads.
* A little coffee or tea is okay, but don't have it after 4 pm to keep you awake and certainly don't have it at night to keep studying. If you need coffee to keep you awake at night in order to keep studying, you're fooling yourself about your level of effectiveness. Good sleep is the best way of dealing with exams. If you have a deadline, wake early and start when your mind is really alert.
* Drink lots of water
* Avoid sugary soft drinks, particularly just before an exam.
* Supplement with brain vitamins and minerals (speak to your naturopath or health food store), especially Vitamin C for it's antioxidant action
* Gingko Biloba taken for two to three weeks has been shown to improve memory and thinking.
* Vitamin Bs are very good for feeding your nervous system, especially if you're feeling stressed.

During  periods of study, exercise at least 45 minutes each day. Exercise gets blood flowing to your brain, supplying oxygen, antioxidants and glucose.  It also releases substances such as noradrenalin in your body to prepare you for exams and reduce stress. Research shows that small bouts of exercise in between study and before exams can make a significant difference in performance.
During periods of intensive study you need hourly breaks (or even 30 minute breaks). Make your break a brisk 10 minutes walk. It will help everything you have done sink into the powerful, subconscious part of your brain.  After two hours, take a 20 minute brisk walk and give yourself a good break. Don't fool yourself that you're still working well. You're probably functioning at around or less than 50 per cent. It's okay for mundane tasks, but not if you need really focused concentration.
Set regular study patterns. Don't do everything late at night.  Your brain is already getting tired. The morning is the best time to study and that is not just after midnight. Learn how to use your brain effectively.
Do a memory course or a mind-mapping course. It can make remembering specific information so much easier, and will improve your general memory as well. After a memory course you can learn more than a hundred facts and figures in less than an hour, have fun doing it and have perfect recall.
Talk about the ideas and information you have learnt with friends, a study buddy. It will help lock it into your long-term memory and you'll learn new information from each other.

Learn to Relax

Taking deep breaths is an important start, because it sends relaxation messages to your brain. There are many other things you can do. Best learning occurs in the alpha and theta brain wave states. These are when you are most relaxed and not stressed. When you are in a stressed busy state you are in an beta state and you cant learn well. A simple meditation can take only five to ten minutes and can prevent you stressing and get you into an alpha brain wave learning state. Try sitting still, and slowly, with each breath, count from 50 to one. Focus on the numbers only. If you get distracted, go back to the last number and keep going.
Be aware of your posture while you're studying - don't hunch over the desk. It stops you breathing deeply and slows down the flow of oxygen to your brain. Remember to stretch. Put your shoulders back and take a deep breath regularly. Being hunched over a desk also tells your brain that you are tired and not very positive, so that's how it starts to respond.
I always tell my students to start studying and exams with the biggest smile you can make. Sounds strange, maybe even funny, but it sends positive messages to your brain. It increases the feel good chemicals in the brain, increases blood flow to the brain and immediately reduces stress. Research shows it also increases your creativity, and it's fun.
Plan your study and plan to study well.  By having the right attitude and planning your study, you can save hours and hours of what may otherwise be wasted time.

* Set goals for the amount of time and the quality of time for your period of study. 
* Set goals for each study period, the exams and for the year. These will help to focus and motivate you.
* Write down your goals - what you want to achieve, how you are going to achieve it and why it's important to achieve it.
* Put your list of goals on the wall in your study.
* Don't wait for deadlines to motivate you, get in early.
* Visualise yourself being successful when you study.
* Visualise yourself in the exam feeling positive and writing the right answers. See yourself coming out of the exam and feeling really positive.
* After your exams or long periods of study reward yourself (but not with junk foods).
* There are many other things you can do to improve your thinking but the best one is to use your logic and commonsense.

To learn effectively you need to have a study environment that's positive, enjoyable and free from distractions. It also has to be a healthy environment.
* Study in an enjoyable environment. 
* Put on some gentle music. Baroque music, such as Bach and the music of Mozart has a very positive effect on brain waves and helps you to learn. It may not be cool but you will be smarter.
* Open the doors and windows to the study. Fresh air is critical to good brain function. Stuffy air or chemical smells will affect your brain's ability to focus. One gas in particular, carbon monoxide, reduces the oxygen available to the brain. Carbon monoxide is found in high concentrations in car exhaust and tobacco smoke.
* Don't smoke, and especially don't smoke in your study.  It has hundreds of chemicals that attack your brain cells.
* Get rid of distractions. Despite what you may think, you can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Don't waste your time by studying at 10 per cent. Turn off  the phone, television and all other distractions, with the exception of quiet, light background music.
* Wherever you study, make it a positive place. Decorate it in pleasing colours, have good light, pictures and photographs on the walls, and put up messages, quotes and photographs that inspire you.


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  5. Hi Peter
    all sounds good but what exactly is "capmaps"?