What student doesn’t want to do better? In essence every student can improve, some a little, others a lot. This does not just apply to school. All of us are students; we learn and perform mental tasks every day for our career, in relationships, and in life in general. It’s why we need to increase our brain power.
Effective studying is a complex activity requiring a myriad of intricate brain connections. But hold on just a minute. To optimize study time, you need to know which environment suits you best. Do you perform better in absolute quiet, or with background noise (full-on volume or somewhere in between)? This knowledge is crucial. If you cannot be effective in the environment you study in, then no amount of effort or diligence will result in success.
Once you establish the correct study environment, make sure you are comfortable (but not too comfortable, or you may fall asleep) and that the lighting is suitable to see what you need to study. If it is too bright or too dark, you run the risk of straining your eyes, which can lead to headaches, distraction, and the inability to study effectively. These are the bare bone components of effective studying. Next we need to tackle the physiological barriers to success. The number one barrier on this list is stress. Stress is a double edged sword; although it can be a motivating factor, there is a strong link between elevated stress and memory loss.
There have been numerous clinical studies on this subject, and researchers believe that some of the hormones our bodies release when under stress can be neurotoxic over time, damaging the key cells that transmit and process signals in your brain and other parts of your nervous system. This may explain why some people become physically ill in stressful situations. In order to minimize “stressful situations” when studying, do something relaxing, such as exercising, listening to music, or having a cup of herbal tea, to reduce stress levels before you begin studying. This should improve your results.
The Caffeine Connection
You see it constantly in university libraries and classrooms where people are supposedly trying to study. The ubiquitous coffee cup. In fact most libraries, both public and academic, now have their own coffee shops, and some have more than one. So does caffeine help studying? We know that caffeine is a stimulant, causing increased heart rate. On the plus side, it does increase alertness; on the minus side, it also can increase agitation, restlessness, and anxiety.
So what does the clinical evidence show? The overall effect is that caffeine is slightly helpful (having virtually little to no effect) on improved memory in repetitive tasks, most of which is attributed to a reduction in boredom and fatigue from the activity. In complex learning, caffeine showed non-significant effects on cognitive, learning, and memory performance, and the increased anxiety could prove to be detrimental. Therefore green tea may be a better option, providing health-promoting antioxidants and some caffeine minus the over-stimulating effects of coffee.
Feed the Machine
There is a famous old computer programmer acronym, G.I.G.O., which stands for ‘Garbage In Garbage Out.’ It points out that you should not expect the product of your effort to result in something better than your inputs. One of your key inputs is nutrition. If you sit down to study when you are hungry, it will keep your brain focused on hunger, not on learning. But not any food will do. Junk food is garbage, and it will most likely result in garbage results. Proper eating habits-and not just the meal before studying-gives your body, and most importantly your brain, the nutrients it needs to stay fit and perform at peak potential.
There are supplements that can “feed the brain” and improve your chances of study success. Remember that the effects are not instantaneous, so as with most supplements you will need to include them in your daily routine to receive their benefits.
DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 essential fatty acid found in fish and algae. Approximately two-thirds of your brain is fat, and the most abundant fat in your brain is DHA. Unfortunately, we are less effective at converting other omega-3 fats into DHA, so we need to constantly ensure we are getting enough DHA each day. You can get DHA from eating fatty fish or by taking a daily DHA supplement, such as fish oil.
Both Ginkgo biloba and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) are herbs with long histories of use to improve memory, concentration, and learning, and they have both been shown in numerous clinical trials to reduce stress, all of which contribute to improved learning.
Remember, even if your schedule is busy, you have to find the time to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and try to keep your stress at a manageable level. If you make it a priority, you will be able enjoy studying and make the whole process a little bit less stressful.