21 recommended brain hacks from leading neuroscientists

2 May 2019

By April Cashin-Garbutt

We often read about so-called “brain hacks” -  help, advice and guidance aimed at improving the brain. But how can we know which tips really work? I spoke with leading neuroscientists and asked them to share their favourite brain hacks that they implement in their daily lives.

1. Use the ‘Memory Palace’ technique to remember difficult lists

“The ‘Memory Palace’ is an ancient Greek and Roman technique for memorising difficult things, like lists of names, by mapping them onto memorable imagery. I do something similar to this when trying to remember the names of all my undergraduate students. I don’t map the students onto arbitrary compelling images, but I use a technique where I try to remember something visually compelling about them, for example that they wear a blue coat.” 

“My research looks at why we are so good at remembering images and why we are better at that than other things, for example, we are really good at remembering pictures but not lists of numbers. The Memory Palace technique takes advantage of this innate type of memory that we are so good at and uses it to form associations. In terms of understanding how exactly this works, I would argue that we don’t truly know where these associations are formed.” Nicole Rust, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania

“I felt like I understood memory tricks in a new light after learning more about the hippocampus. Some famous memory tricks are memory palace, coming up with a story about the thing you're trying to remember, or making it a song that maybe rhymes or has some cadence. And I think at least the first two, making a story and binding things to your memory palace, have a really clean explanation in terms of what we know about the hippocampus and its affinity for encoding spatial environments and narratives. I don't know any research on songs being represented in the hippocampus, but it's always been something that I've been kind of curious to investigate.Kim Stachenfeld, DeepMind

2. Link memories together to create context

“It is typically difficult to remember bits of information out of context. It seems that when memories are linked together, it is easier to remember them. For example, a friend once told me about his high school teacher who thought a trick to remember an accurate approximation of the mathematical constant e: “It starts with 2.7, and then it twice the year of birth of Tolstoy -1828. Therefore so it is 2.718281828”. Needless to say, that none of the students a-priori knew either the value of e or the year of birth of the famous writer, but thanks to the “trick”, they were able to remembered both.” Dr Alon Rubin, Weizmann Institute of Science

3. Avoid blue light at night

“I've been avoiding blue light at night, since before it was cool! It is thought that there are melanopsin positive cells in the retina that project to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, but they're not photoreceptive cells that you see with, they're photoreceptive cells that just communicate information like 'How bright is it?' And 'How blue is it?' to the regions of the brain that set your circadian rhythm. There is also a synapse, somewhere in the thalamus, on some cells representing pain and that's one of the reasons why people who are experiencing a migraine find blue light so painful.Andrea Hasenstaub, Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco

4. Use your motor system when learning something new

“If you want to learn something, try to put it in as many modalities of neural function as possible. For example, when I was learning something new, I would always write in the margin notes. Even though I never read the notes again, the act of putting it into my motor system helped me to remember the facts.”

“Our brain has evolved to move through the world and one of the things that has come out of the field in the last 50 years is that the motor system has all of this beautiful interaction with the sensory stations in the brain, these more cognitive stations. So engaging those circuits has this chance of really fortifying memories onto parts of the brain.” Dr Adam Hantman, Janelia

5. Play sports or perform activities that produce precise movements

“I think it is very good to play sports where you have to produce precise movements towards dynamic targets, for example tennis, ping pong etc. as the link between cognition and action may be closer than people think. If you improve your ability in performing spatial actions, I think it might have a positive effect on cognition.” Dr Marco Tripodi, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB)

6. If you want to be happy, keep your expectations low

“In my research I study prediction error and it is known that we get a dopamine surge when there is a big difference from expectation and actual outcome. So my brain hack is that I try to keep my expectations low so that I always get happy!”

“When you try to achieve something difficult you have to set a high goal, but you can still keep your expectation low such that you might not achieve that goal. However, if you achieve the high goal then you will be highly satisfied. Things often fail though so I think it is always best to keep your expectations low!” Professor Naoshige Uchida, Harvard University

7. Be aware of emotional states

“Be as aware as you can of your own emotional states and enjoy them and be patient with the states of other people. Perhaps if you realise that other people’s actions are directed by their instinctive urges, we can be more accepting of each other.” Dr Cornelius Gross, EMBL

8. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

“I think it is important to have an appropriate distance from your identification of self. For example, when I go to a sporting event that my child is participating in and parents get very competitive about how their children do. If you take people aside, they will acknowledge that it is about the children’s development and dealing with failure and success and interacting with people and so forth. Nonetheless, you get emotionally attached in ways that can cause you distress, for example if someone commits a foul against your child, you may be upset that they haven’t been treated fairly, or if your team is losing.

The trick that I do is imagine I am a parent of another child on the other team and how would I then feel about the situation. What this does is makes me realise we are all parents of children doing this together and so I should get over myself and not take it personally, as the value in this is what we’re doing overall as a group. This also works when you get annoyed at other drivers in traffic. Try it!Professor Rich Krauzlis, National Eye Institute

9. Develop a growth mind-set

“I think that the growth mind-set is a very helpful brain hack. The growth mind-set emphasises the possibility of change and growth as opposed to focusing on capacity or ability. David Yeager and Carol Dweck have shown that short exposures to growth mind-set can really enhance the capacity for change in people and the willingness and motivation to learn and adapt. They have also found interesting ways teens and children differ in their responsiveness to different messages.”

“Related to this, I have also been intrigued to learn from my developmental colleagues that teenagers are deeply motivated by respect, status and prestige and therefore it is very important to consider how to work with them respectfully and to include them in discussions relative to their lives and their development. For example, you can’t treat children and adolescents the same, you have to start update your approach to engage adolescents and their developing sense of agency. These updates can make or break intervention or outreach outcomes.” Dr Linda Wilbrecht, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley

10. Make sure your environment is conducive to your needs

“I am distracted by clutter, be it auditory or visual, so oftentimes when I need to think about something, I need my desk to be clean or I need for it to be quiet. However, there are other situations where I need to be more creative and let my mind wander and being in a coffee shop or a messy room actually helps. So, the hack is putting myself in a situation that’s conducive to what I need to do at that time.Dr Gabe Murphy, Allen Institute

11. Offload information to a planner

“I have a very poor sense of time and so a really simply brain hack I use is keeping a planner, so I can offload all knowledge of the timing of things that I have to do in the day.Dr Josh Dudman, Janelia

12. Schedule your time in advance

“I always schedule my time so that I'm not wasting a lot of time every day trying to decide what should I do next.” James Fitzgerald, Janelia

13. Do important tasks when your brain is at its optimal performance

“The best brain hacks I can think of are more like scheduling or optimization hacks. Everybody has a specific time during the day where their brain is at its optimal performance and so a scheduling hack I use is to save that time to do important tasks. I would recommend giving your highest performing time to your most demanding tasks. If you're best at 7 in the morning, and you're checking emails at that time, I don't think you're optimally using your capacity.” Dr Randall Platt, Assistant Professor, ETH Zurich

“There is certainly evidence that when the prefrontal cortex, the part that does a lot of rational decision making, is depleted in energy, your rationality and ability to make sound decisions decreases.

“For example, at night when you're tired and you know you should go to bed, but sometimes there's something on TV and you know that it will hurt you in the morning, but you're tired and you go, "You know what? What's the worst that can happen?" Of course, in the morning, you completely regret your decision of staying up late.

Knowing that my brain isn’t optimal at that time has helped me to really force myself to listen to that small part of my brain that makes rational decisions when I know I'm tired, and also prevents me from making any important decisions during that time.

“So I really try not to send important emails or make work decisions when I'm tired or hungry. It has also helped me to raise our kids because it makes you pause in the midst of trying to deal with a meltdown and to realize that physiologically, they are not at their most rational. So studying neuroscience has allowed me to become more patient with my kids, though their opinion of this may differ with mine.Dr Tuan Bui, Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa

14. When you get stuck on a problem, go do something else

“When I am really stuck and baffled by an issue, I sit down at my desk and remind myself of the raw materials of the problem and then I go do something else."

"When I had a farm, I used to go out and plough a field, or mow some hay, or paint a barn door, mow the grass, some relatively cognitively undemanding repetitive task, which would let my mind wander, but not just daydream, not just fall asleep. I’m alert, but I have elbow room to think at the same time. Going for a walk is a great way of shaking up your thoughts."

"I suspect that when we know more about it, we will see that this has precisely the effect of temporarily adjusting all sorts of thresholds and dispositions that are blocking paths that are preventing you from making progress."

"My colleague, Marcel Kinsbourne, likes to say, 'The reason any problem is hard is because there’s an easy and tempting answer that’s wrong, and getting beyond that seductive error is the hard part.'” Professor Daniel Dennett, Tufts University

15. Place an object somewhere unusual to remind you to do something

“One famous brain hack is putting a knot in your handkerchief to remember something. I do something similar, by putting something in an unusual place to remind me that there was something that I needed to take care of. It doesn’t need to be something relevant, the simple fact that something isn’t in its normal location is enough to remind me.” Dr Sabine Krabbe, Janelia

16. Always leave your keys in the same place

“Divided attention is really bad for memory and I think it's best to focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking does not work and so I always leave my keys in the same place, so I never have to worry where they are.Professor Sheena Josselyn, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)

17. Ensure you get adequate sleep and regular exercise

“Adequate sleep and regular exercise: It is truly amazing how much better my brain works when I make time for both!Professor Kathleen Cullen, Johns Hopkins University

18. Do more walking!

“Recently, I was reading that scientists have shown that by walking three times a week for half an hour or so, increases a part of your brain called the hippocampus, which has a lot to do with memory, and helps humans do better in memory tests. So if I had to give one tip, I would say do more walking!” Professor Javier Medina, Baylor College of Medicine

19. Enjoy your sense of smell

“My favourite brain hack that's related to my science is that ultimately smell is incredibly pleasurable, and so I encourage people not to be scared of smell as a sensual sense. There is such great art in wine making, and in cookery, and perfumery, and it's something I definitely indulge in, and I think makes me a much happier person, and I recommend it to everyone!” Dr Sandeep Robert Datta, Harvard Medical School 

20. Learn to meditate

“Meditation I think is a good brain hack. It takes practice but there is nothing hard about it. Learn how to do it and you can find it easier to relax and go to sleep.

There have been some studies but I don’t think we fully know what is happening in the brain when we meditate. When we are conscious, we are viewing the contents of our working memory and I think what meditation is about is using working memory to either regulate the flow of information that reaches consciousness or keep certain information out of consciousness when you want a pure state of being in your mind with nothing there. Sometimes it is about letting information flow through and observing it without being disrupted by it, so I think working memory is very important to understand.Professor Joseph E LeDoux, New York University and Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research

21. Find time to detach from work

“Professional life is very intense and I find spending time with my children is the best way to detach from my work. For me, detaching is important for mental health but also for intellectual development, so that you can take distance from things and come back to them again with fresh perspective.Dr Yoav Livneh, Harvard Medical School