Friday, August 28, 2015

Change Your Brain, Up Your Study Game!

“I’m a poor at taking tests.” “I can’t focus.” “I don’t write very well.” But all these are really just labels that you have placed into your mind. The fact is your brain is not carved of stone; it’s a malleable organ. 'Neuroplasticity' is the word used to refer to the continual changes your brain makes based on your activities and experiences. We all have the ability to make healthy choices that could quite literally rewire your brain and alter its chemistry. Not convinced? Keep reading and maybe you’ll change your mind. Here’s our roundup of ways to change your brain for the better:

1. Cut the negative self-talk.
UCLA psychiatrists Drs. Rebecca Gladding and Jeffrey Schwartz studied what they call “deceptive brain messages” or “false beliefs,” which maintain that negative thought patterns hold students back and lead to unhealthy habits. The two authored You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life. “By becoming aware of the messages that trigger our behaviors, we can resist acting upon them and instead refocus our attention on healthy actions. By doing so, we rewire our brains and create a new, positive association between thoughts and actions.”

Change your thinking: The four-step process calls you to take any false belief and 1) relabel, 2) reframe, 3) refocus and 4) revalue the issue.
“You can also use the four steps when you have arguments with friends, significant others, parents, or when you are anxious, upset, stressed, etc.” says Gladding. She points out how to use the four steps to work through the stress before an exam:

Step No. 1: Relabel
I am really stressed. I feel the fluttering in my chest, the pit in my stomach -- it’s just anxiety.

Step No. 2: Reframe
This is a normal reaction to wanting to do well on the exam. It’s because I feel like so much is riding on getting good grades. There’s a pressure I am putting on myself. I need to use this energy in a productive way, not spin my wheels and worry about whether or not I will pass.

Step No. 3: Refocus
I am going to focus my energy on studying right now. It may actually make me feel better too. On the flip side, if you already know the material, Gladding recommends that you go for a walk or do something else so you’re not constantly obsessing about the test. “Don’t go over something again and again that you already know by heart,” she says.

Step No. 4: Revalue
Putting this much pressure on myself is more harmful than good. I need to step back and realize that I’ve done well in the past and likely will do well in the future if I study hard and also have a little bit of fun, relaxed time. Going 100 percent all the time is not healthy, and neither is constantly worrying about whether or not I will pass.

2. Play video games!
A mountain of evidence shows that playing video games effectively sharpens brain skills. In a recent article titled “Brains on video games,” published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, C. Shawn Green, associate professor of psychology at the Center for Cognitive Science at University of Wisconsin, stated that benefits include “enhancements in low-level vision, visual attention, speed of processing and statistical inference, among others. Properly controlled training studies have repeatedly demonstrated a causal link between video game–playing and enhanced abilities. It is not just that people who naturally choose to play games have better perceptual skills. The ability to improve one’s abilities through practice has obvious practical ramifications.”

Change your brain right now: “Studies that have examined perception and spatial cognition -- from our lab and many others -- have focused on one specific genre of games: the so-called ‘action’ video games,” says Green. “Indeed, playing this type of game results in a wide range of benefits.” Break out the controllers!

3. Be heart-smart.
Science shows that the heart does a whole lot more than simply pump blood through the body. Your heart is intelligent! Say researchers at the Institute of HeartMath: “The heart is, in fact, a highly complex, self-organized information-processing center with its own functional ‘brain’ that communicates with and influences the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways. These influences profoundly affect brain function.” The Institute’s findings have unlocked clues to help students improve academic performance, test scores and even social skill. 

4. Still your mind.
Recent studies show structural changes in the brain as a result of what’s known as “mindfulness meditation.” Said Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at University of Oxford in England, during an interview on National Public Radio: “One of the first things you learn in mindfulness meditation is how to just settle the mind, how to focus -- not to clear the mind. It’s not the idea that you try to switch off all these thoughts, but that you see them passing through the mind like clouds in the sky. Most of us find that our attention is often hijacked by our current concerns, so our attention just wanders all over the place and it’s very difficult to focus.”

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