What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Balance is key.
THE INTERNET HAS GIVEN US many gifts — cat memes, Instagram, the ability to hear any piece of recorded music at any given moment, or having vodka delivered to our doorstep using only the sound of our voice. Still, one can’t help but wonder if technology, the chaos of the current cultural moment, and our codependent relationships with our devices (themselves engineered to make sure we never have to think, question, read a map, or spell anything) have all conspired to turn our minds into a collective mush. After a year spent alternately doom-scrolling on Twitter or binge-watching Netflix to escape the realities of our own homes, is it any wonder that so many of us emerged into the summer sun only to realize that we scarcely remembered our own names?
For those of us who still routinely ask our best friends Siri and Alexa to tell us what day of the week it is, or who go shopping for books and return with only those of the soothing adult-coloring variety, how exactly do we get our minds right? Is the brain a muscle that can be whipped back into shape? The world is flooded with products, puzzles, supplements, and self-help screeds claiming to sharpen mental acuity and improve failing memory (including apps for our phones that promise to restore the clarity we’ve lost by staring at apps on our phones). But does any of it work? There is no shortage of practical information on how to move, shape, and care for our physical bodies, but what, if anything, can be done to improve the bandwidth of our overloaded little brains?
As someone who has spent his career seeking a better understanding of how the mind works, Dr. Arnold Bakker, a cognitive scientist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, kindly offers some insight into why so many of us are feeling particularly foggy right now, and the simple things we can do to clear the mental cobwebs.
For people who feel like their memory has worsened as they’ve grown older, or who feel like they are operating right now in a kind of perpetual brain fog, what might you tell them? What are some simple things we can try and change in our day-to-day lives to improve not only the way we remember things, but also the way we think and feel?
Give yourself a break. The pandemic created huge challenges requiring us to worry about things we didn’t really need to worry about before: lockdowns preventing normal routines, dealing with new work challenges either due to the loss of a job or having to change the way we work, with extra safety procedures, or adapting to a virtual work environment. All this while many of us also needed to provide care for dependents, homeschool children, and work from home with often even higher work pressures than normal. At the same time, we had fewer opportunities for social support due to social distancing and travel restrictions. Dealing with all this and coming to terms with this new normal is mentally and emotionally taxing. So give yourself a break and don’t worry about feeling foggy or forgetful sometimes. There is a lot to process.
When you need to get some things done that require your attention, take a moment to think about exactly what you want to accomplish and what can wait. For things you don’t really need to know by heart — like certain details for a work project or a grocery list — rely on notes instead of trying to remember them. Plan your day and try to work on one thing at a time, and plan fewer things for a single day. If you can create some balance, you’ll find that you’re more effective and efficient and you’ll actually get more done and feel better. Try to incorporate some exercise in each day. That doesn’t need to be a trip to the gym. A brisk walk or a bike ride is great. Make sure you get enough sleep.
People often brag about their multitasking skills, and we’ve come to view the ability to juggle many tasks at once as a kind of badge of honor. Is the culture of multitasking actually the enemy of memory?
Although we like to think of ourselves as great multitaskers, our brains are really not designed to do multiple things at once. Our brains actually quickly (or sometimes not so quickly) switch back and forth between the various tasks at hand. Divided attention really impairs our ability to store information, especially details. We also tend to think that memory is instantaneous, but it actually takes some time to convert short-term memories into long-term memory. Biological processes in the brain that are necessary to store information in long-term memory actually occur over a period of 30 minutes to a few hours following the event. Switching back and forth between multiple tasks can cause interference in this process and hinder our ability to store and retain information. We can certainly do multiple tasks at once, but if it’s important to remember what you are working on, it’s better to focus on one task at a time.
Is the brain a muscle that can be improved with exercise? Is there any truth to the idea that certain activities — like puzzles or number games — can exercise our brains and improve our memory function?
There is some evidence that shows that better sleep, moderate cardiovascular exercise, and decreased stress can improve certain memory functions, but it’s not clear that puzzles and brain games can actually improve our abilities [in ways] similar to exercising your muscles. In general, improving physical health can improve memory function, while staying mentally active (reading, puzzles, taking classes, engaging in hobbies and social events) is protective against cognitive decline.
I’m almost scared to ask, but has a year spent indoors binge-watching Netflix somehow atrophied our brains?
It depends. If you used Netflix to give yourself a break from the stresses of work and school during pandemic life, to relax and process everything that has happened over the past year, it was likely beneficial to your mental health and cognition functioning. If the past year culminated in your personal record for Netflix and couch time, the lack of physical activity and cognitive engagement likely had a detrimental effect on your cognition and memory. Fortunately, though, these effects are reversible, as improving physical activity can have a beneficial effect on memory in as little as a few weeks.
Being tethered to the news via our social media seems to keep many people constantly living under this ambient cloud of anxiety due to the insane state of the world. How much does stress impact the way we think and remember?
Stress — particularly prolonged exposure to stress — has very significant effects on cognitive functioning, and memory specifically. Chronic stress changes how our brain functions and results in poorer memory and increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause further cognitive impairments. While experiencing stress in the short term can be adaptive, it is important to actively relax and find ways to have periods of lower stress.
Do you have any other general advice about how we might better take care of our brains and sharpen our cognitive skills?
In general, what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Balance is key. Try to keep a healthy diet, incorporate some exercise in your day, and make sure you get enough sleep. If your job keeps you sitting behind a computer in virtual meetings all day, try to have your downtime involve some physical activity. If your job is physically demanding, make sure you get some rest. Aim to have your day consist of time that involves mentally challenging activities, either through work or hobbies, but also time to relax and reflect. Having a social support system helps reduce stress.
Our society and employers tend to value cramming as much work as possible into the day, but working long hours and not getting enough sleep actually has very detrimental effects on our cognitive skills and reduces efficiency, creativity, and flexibility. By setting clear boundaries and actively disengaging from work — which can be especially challenging when working from home — we actually end up getting more done by being more efficient. Focusing on your physical health and maintaining balance in your daily activities is the best way to take care of your brain and optimize your cognitive skills. It will certainly help you feel better.
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the deputy editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Estefania Loret de Mola Illustrator
Estefania Loret de Mola is an American creative designer currently based in Urbana, Illinois. With a focus in graphic design, she aims to explore how we interact and understand visual communication to push the concept of graphic design as something multidimensional and experimental.