How To Use The Brain to improve Life, Skills, Expertise & Thinking

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In this round-up article, I’m going to highlight only the key insights from psychology that will help you use your brain at its highest potential and accelerate personal growth. When I say “highest potential,” I really mean how you can use your brain to actively take charge of your life in every single domain and achieve the best you can by modestly pushing your boundaries. These tips will help you improve your learning ability, social and psychological health, relationships, expertise, authority, and develop byproducts such as self-esteem, confidence, creativity, and mental agility. Our brain’s structure and activity changes as we learn and grow. So the simple answer to “how to use the brain?” is: keep it functioning, nourish it, learn new things, and let the neurons form new circuits that facilitate constructive changes in every aspect of life.

Fun fact: We grow about 700 new neurons every day; if we don’t use them, we lose them; 80 billion glial cells are there to support the remaining 80 billion neurons (source). I believe that is enough to show that we are predestined (genetically) to grow and nourish our brains.

Prerequisites to use your brain and push it to your highest potential

The most basic activities you can begin with for self-growth are:

  1. Get adequate sleep, eat well, drink water, and exercise. Without sleep, food, water, and physical movement, you will compromise every aspect of your mind/body. Your brain cannot function without those. That includes cognitive abilities, mental health, physical health, motivation, and baseline energy.
  2. Pay attention to what you are doing. Attention is one of the most fundamental cognitive abilities that make people active. Without attention, one only reacts, quite literally. You’ll be stuck with your reflexes, your existing habits, and a general level of indifference. Paying attention is not overthinking. It is about acknowledging the presence of the big picture and the small details in everything you do.
  3. Pay attention to things around you. Not everything will grab your attention automatically. To grow at the mental level, you should deliberately direct your attention to things you expect and don’t expect. This goes by many related names: vigilance, observation, concentration, openness, broad-mindedness, etc.
  4. Satisfy your most basic needs. Unmet needs are a source of all types of negative consequences such as stress, frustration, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression. The most typical basic human needs[1] are: the need for security, need for autonomy (independence), need for shelter, food, and clothing, need for sex and intimacy, need to connect with others and belong, and need for a sense of achievement. There are many more needs, but these are some that are often a barrier to growth. They are not just a barrier to growth; satisfying them can be defined as growth. Some of the tips below will help you meet your needs.
  5. Learn a bit about your brain and behavior. A basic understanding of your behavior and thought process is a good start. Scientific knowledge and experiences are both required to have a good understanding of what’s happening.
  6. Engage-disengage your brain and let it relax: The best way to keep a healthy functioning brain is to keep it predominantly relaxed or engaged in active work such as thinking or learning something new. Learning a new language, musicking, coding, consuming a variety of media, exploring new fields, reading, teaching, talking with knowledgeable people, chatting up silly people, sports, games, etc. are a great way to engage the brain. Develop curiosity too. Notice how engaging the brain also means engaging the body: both are intimately connected. Also, let your brain go idle and relax. An idle brain is great for creative thinking, but it is also prone to overthinking, so an idle but relaxed is an excellent mental state. Do what you need to relax: Go with a social detox, Netflix, listen to music, learn psychological techniques, go out in nature, complete your work, do yoga, etc. A stressed brain[2] has negative consequences on the brain’s biology and memory systems too, so it’s best to limit your stress.

How to use the brain to improve personal and social well-being, mental health, and become a happier, satisfied person

I’ve summarized the following points from this article which explains them with a bit more detail.

  1. Express gratitude to increase positive emotions, positive memories, and reduce negativity.
  2. Become optimistic and cultivate hope without lying to yourself because hope is abstract and it defines what you can do.
  3. Nurture quality social relationships, even if you don’t need to be social all the time.
  4. Experience flow by doing an activity you are deeply engaged in, feel challenged by, and have the motivation for; explore new activities to get in the zone.
  5. Appreciate the beauty in life and deliberately pay attention to admire that beauty.
  6. Do personally meaningful things and find a way to relate to something.
  7. Take care of your body and pay attention to what it is telling you.
  8. Work on your physical body and shape it to your liking. It may be as small as a haircut or as big as a body-transformation, as long as you are satisfied with it.
  9. Work on physical hygiene because it reflects how you treat yourself and how others perceive you.
  10. Connect with nature and animals because this biophilia is an excellent defense against poor mental health and a big promoter of well-being and mental clarity.
  11. Understand your social media behavior to drop the negative things and engage with good things.
  12. Seek solitude for yourself as well as satisfy your need for social activities (real and digital) on purpose, not because you have no option.
  13. Practice self-compassion, self-acceptance, and compassion toward others.
  14. Learn to communicate with all kinds of people.
  15. Establish financial & personal security to develop psychological comfort.
  16. Learn healthy coping mechanisms and control the unhealthy ones.
  17. Understand your emotions to regulate them and manage them.
  18. Accept or reject specific, believable things you say to yourself as some may help you grow and some may pull you down.
  19. Align how you feel about yourself and how you present yourself to the world and yourself.
  20. Work on your sense of achievement, competence, and autonomy/independence.
  21. Don’t avoid negative experiences/thoughts, learn to work through them because how you deal with the unavoidable stresses of life determine how well your brain has adapted.
  22. Find a way to make sense of an uncontrollable, uncertain universe.
  23. Practice mindfulness, meditation, and yoga.
  24. Do small things today which may or may not affect you in the future.
  25. Maintain a healthy sleep routine and recover your sleep as soon as possible.
  26. Smile and improve your posture for a better social presence and mood.
  27. Don’t eliminate fun and enjoyment in life, but also learn to tolerate boredom.
  28. Maintain balance & harmony in your way of life – whichever way you define it.
  29. Spend time on activities and people that make you feel good, not activities that make you feel guilty or worthless.

How to use the brain for optimized learning and skill development

Most learning depends on how you approach it and fortunately for us, there are many good ways to approach learning. Good learning is a natural, likely outcome of fun, curiosity, personal relevance, and motivation. On top of that, you can use the following insights from hundreds of research studies that tell us how we can optimize our learning process. (source 1, source 2). The benefits are in the brackets.

  1. Sleep well and enough (improve cognition, save time)
  2. Avoid procrastination (save time, reduce anxiety/stress)
  3. Avoid counting hours and the study volume (save time, reduce stress)
  4. Have fun in life (stay motivated)
  5. Be aware of all the headings and subheadings in your study material and use that index as a template to organize learning (improve memory and confidence)
  6. Drink water, eat food, exercise (improve cognition, stay alive)
  7. Use the Pomodoro technique: Study in groups of exactly 20 minutes with a short break (save time, study huge portions with ease)
  8. Use spaced repetition: Repeatedly revisit your learning with a longer delay in time till you are intuitively aware of the information (improve memory, save time)
  9. Use interleaving: Study related/similar concepts in parallel, not after mastering each one individually (learn a broad topic holistically)
  10. Use metacognition: Reflect on what you’ve studied, join the dots, find applications, ask questions, find gaps (improve fundamental understanding)
  11. Practice to remember: Remembering is a different cognitive ability from memory in the sense that you can have something in memory but not remember it (improve recall, save time)
  12. Chunk information and make small digestible groups (save time, improve memory)
  13. Use background instrumental music if you have surplus attention and are distracted, human voices are most distracting because our brain is primed to attend to them (save time, improve cognition)
  14. Broaden information and contexts (big-picture learning) to improve conceptual and abstract knowledge (improve cognition)
  15. Focus on the details as well as the bird’s eye view (global and narrow focus) to join one concept to the other, like a large color-coded mental web (improve understanding)
  16. Develop a mental representation of what you learn called (improve memory, understanding)
  17. Manipulate the cognitive load of information to maintain a moderate level of difficulty (improve memory)
  18. Make your learning fun, meaningful, relatable, and relevant. Find a way to connect it to your future or your current life, so you are curious to learn more (improve motivation, satisfaction, and value)
  19. Combine various techniques listed here (maximize learning, save time, reduce stress)
  20. Articulate your learning in a simple way so you can teach a beginner; describe what you learned in a few sentences with the details (identify your gaps in knowledge, confirm learning)
  21. Pay close attention to feedback in terms of your performance, your knowledge, what others say, what your body says (refine skills)

How to think clearly

Our brain is tuned to think with quick processes that are sometimes wrong and sometimes right. These quick processes are called heuristics and cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are the persistent mistakes the brain makes while thinking. Selectively paying attention to small amounts of details is a prime example of such biases. Heuristics are thinking patterns that give quick, moderately correct solutions. Biases are inherently warped and skewed; that hampers decision-making. Sometimes, we acquire templates of thinking or thinking patterns that are very damaging to our mental health (commonly seen in anxiety and depression). Those are called cognitive distortions. You can use these techniques to deal with cognitive distortions over and above the recommendations made below.

Common cognitive biases and heuristics

The confirmation bias: We selectively attend to and remember information which fits our preconceptions.

The survivorship bias: We focus on information that survives because the information which didn’t survive is removed from awareness.

The negativity bias: Negative experiences and information has a stronger effect on us than equally intense positive and neutral experiences.

The illusory superiority bias: People tend to rate themselves better than average.

The Halo effect: A positive impression of one aspect of a person influences us to develop a positive impression of another unrelated aspect.

Common cognitive distortions

Selective abstraction: Focusing on only one element of a situation.

Magnifying: Heavy exaggeration of small events.

Mindreading: Guessing what others are thinking even when there is a healthy chance that they are not thinking what you think they are thinking.

Personalizing: Believing that everything is directed at you even when it isn’t or believing that other’s behavior is a consequence of your actions.

Catastrophizing: Predicting negative outcomes and when they happen, thinking that they will be a major disaster. It involves exaggerating mildly unpleasant situations.

All or None thinking: Black and white thinking, thinking in 2 extremes. For example, “if I don’t come first in class, I am a total loser.”

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How to nullify cognitive biases, distortions and overcome wrong heuristics

  1. Focus on the data: In any situation that demands decision making, focus on the evidence or information. Once this becomes a habit, it’s nearly effortless. A lot of information comes from feedback mechanisms that give you some hints about what you did. Success stories are great; failure stories are better because they give you a wealth of data on what you did right and what you did wrong.
  2. Seek out contrary data and conclusions: The most common cognitive bias is called the confirmation bias – people seek out information that confirms their preconceived notions. People also remember information that supports their ideas and forget information that contradicts them. People regularly reinforce their thoughts and opinions without looking for information that contradicts it. People are also biased to think that disconfirming evidence is wrong, and supporting evidence is correct. Nonetheless, all evidence is vital to know the big picture. This also leads to political polarization and why debates rarely resolve themselves.
  3. Understand the noise: Focus on essential aspects of a problem, not every single aspect. Every bit of information has information that is relatively more important and deserves a higher priority. Choose what is most important and relevant. To do this, pay close attention to what you are reading or hearing and identify what it means. Once you do that, you’ll see the useful information, and you’ll develop heuristics to cut through the noise in the future.
  4. Test and Re-test: Put your assumptions to the test and figure out if your conclusions are valid. Remember the failed ones as well as the correct ones. If you do something that has a particular outcome, repeat it in various contexts to understand when your actions verifiably lead to that outcome. You’ll start to notice the background conditions that make the relationship between your actions and outcome stronger (or weaker).
  5. Identify misleading information: People ask leading questions or provide “loaded” contexts that contain information that primes others to think in a certain way. That information is called an anchor. For example, ‘he isn’t that bad a guy.’ Someone is more likely to respond, ‘Yeah, he isn’t that bad,’ but the answer could very well be ‘He is an awesome guy’ if the question were ‘He is a pretty good guy.’ When trying to make a real educated guess, rethink assumptions, spot anchors that bias your answer, use data, and try to work out a solution based on what you can concretely figure out or approximate.
  6. Make educated guesses: Use the information you have to make approximations while addressing the idea that there is a whole lot of information that you aren’t aware of. Look for additional information when you have none. Making educated guesses is about applying knowledge with as little bias and high confidence in a way that is flexible yet reasonably accurate. One easy approach is to identify the facts and limitations of your process.
  7. Avoid misattributions: People often misattribute feelings generated by one thing to another thing and then get confused about what’s causing those emotions. We see this in advertisements. The feelings for an actor are often misattributed to the quality of a product. Since many emotions and thoughts occur before we are aware, they can bias our evaluation of our future thoughts and feelings. People mistakenly misattribute the reason for doing something to another thing and then use those judgments to make decisions.
  8. Have multiple perspectives: You can look at a situation from a different person’s point of view (empathy) or even literally look at something from a different angle. In both cases, you will get new information. Your opinions could change. It’s easier to think from someone else’s perspective than to think from an imaginary perspective.
  9. Assume you don’t know what you don’t know: In many situations, it is not possible to understand the clockwork that leads to a phenomenon. Let go of assumptions. Accept that there are factors at play that could be beyond your comprehension. The unknown unknown. You wouldn’t know what you don’t know.

How to develop expertise in any area you like

Researchers have investigated experts from many areas and a recent review of studies[3] highlights 3 key conditions an expert in any area has to meet. All 3 conditions are based on high attention, feedback, verified learning, and an experience-based “automatic” thinking which is often dubbed as intuition and gut feeling.

  1. Experts can differentiate the signal from the noise. In any stream of information that bombards our senses, there is a lot of noise (the useless stuff) and the signal (the important stuff). Experts can separate the signal from the noise in their area. They can identify quality, relevant details, irrelevant details, dead-ends, patterns, core mechanisms, core ideas, errors, and underlying thoughts. They can curate from a list of random sources and recognize the patterns of novices and pros. They quickly identify and select the most important aspects (or core essence) of a large body of information to strategize.
  2. Experts have high reliability and consistency in what they say or do. An expert bird watcher will correctly identify the same bird in different environments over time, but a novice may be unsure and have a wide variety of moderately accurate answers. An expert often has a system that yields results on most occasions and has enough expertise with a variety of problems & concepts to figure out how to address those reliably without losing precision.
  3. Experts have a high sensitivity to different, subtle things. An expert mathematician can identify nuanced differences between problems where a novice sees none. Expert artists can differentiate between contours and colors, but novices won’t notice them at first glance. Experts know a variety of nuanced concepts, ideas, details, and contexts.

These conditions almost always require the 4 additional things: real-world engagement with a concept, theoretical understanding, mental representation of concepts, and precise language to describe those.

How people meet those conditions is a different story. It may or may not involve huge amounts of practice or apprenticeship; it may involve luck, it may be genetic, it may be hard work, it could be anything. But if you do become a real expert, you’ll probably have to have developed all 3. It may look like experts are always experts, but that’s not true. The Einstellung effect describes why experts often fail to see a creative or optimal solution to a problem, but novices can. So if you are a novice, you might have an advantage. Read all about it here.

And that’s how you can begin using your brain – feed it, nourish it, rest it, take care of your body, maintain social health, and engage it well.

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