Sanjay Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and the chief medical correspondent for CNN. He is also the author of Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain At Any Age, a new book that dispels common myths about the brain, offers advice to boost the brain’s processing speed, and includes a 12-week program (with tips on diet, exercise, and sleep) for sharpening your brain. Earlier this month, Gupta was the subject of an enlightening episode of NPR’s Fresh Air podcast. Below, culled from that podcast, are several brain-health myths and tips, which have important implications for anyone looking to immediately improve their creativity, productivity, and efficiency—and maintain the long-term health of their brain.
MYTH: Stress is bad for your brain.
According to Gupta, eliminating stress “is not obtainable, nor is it necessarily a good idea for the brain.” In fact, stress helps us perform well on tests, in interviews, and when giving presentations. However, stress can harm the brain when it’s “unrelenting.” Which is why, given the unrelenting Covid uncertainty and political divisiveness, so many professionals have been severely stressed out this past year. The good news is the anecdote for unrelenting stress is relatively simple: take a break from it—“your brain needs that constant sort of ebb and flow.” A stress break could mean a social media break, a walk around the block, or even just “thinking about the future with the vaccine and things like that in your life.”
MYTH: Your brain’s processing speed and capacity to learn diminish as your brain ages.
It might come as a pleasant surprise to learn that cognitive ability doesn’t necessarily worsen as the brain ages. In fact, quite the opposite can occur: cognitive function can improve over time. That said, the physical matter of the brain, like that of any organ, changes as you get older. But according to Gupta, all of the following brain functions have the ability to improve with time: processing speed, the ability to learn new things, judgment, the use language, and the capacity to find happiness. However, these functions will only improve if you do this: use your brain. “It’s sort of the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon when it comes to the brain,” says Gupta, who recommends thinking of the brain as a muscle. If you keep using it, keep it active, you’ll build it up. But if you don’t, it’ll atrophy and lose its strength as it ages.
MYTH: You only use 10 percent to 20 percent of your brain.
“We use our entire brains throughout our lives,” says Gupta, dispelling the myth that we only use a small fraction of our brains. However, it’s true that a lot of pathways in our brains don’t get that much traffic. Likening our brains to cities, Gupta says that our brains perform most of their work in a few large metropolitan areas, using the same roads to go to work, the grocery store, and our children’s schools, even though “all the roads to get to these different places are constantly in use.” Thankfully, it’s not too difficult to increase the activity on these infrequently used roads. You just have to perform common tasks a little bit differently. For example, you might eat with your left hand instead of your right if you’re right-handed or put on a tie with your eyes closed. “The more you can recruit different parts of your brain to do even simple activities, the better it is for your brain now, and the better it is for your long-term brain health.”
TIP: Get outside your comfort zone.
Perhaps the best thing you can do to train your brain to work better and faster is to constantly learn new things and engage in new activities. Getting outside your comfort zone is good for your brain because when you do new things, you start to build new brain cells, and when you build new brain cells, you increase your brain’s ability to process information and make connections. Returning to the brains as cities metaphor, when you learn new things and build new brain cells, Gupta says that you’re using the same amount of brain, but instead of using parts of your brain as parking lots, you’re using them as buildings. “And as a result, you can do more. You can see patterns that you would otherwise miss. You may be faster at processing things.”
TIP: Engage in memory games, brain teasers, and crossword puzzles.
Another way to increase the speed at which you can process new information is to engage in brain-training games. According to Gupta, crossword puzzles and other brain-training exercises can help ensure that your brain’s frequently-used roads stay strong, preventing them from needing construction. He calls this “the practice makes perfect part of your brain.” However, if your goal is to build cognitive reserve, engaging in new things outside your comfort zone is “probably going to have a much bigger payoff” than brain games.
The keys to maintaining a healthy brain, says Gupta, are exercising, eating well, and, perhaps most important, getting a lot of sleep. Sleep is so important for the brain because it consolidates, organizes, and edits memories—not unlike writing a paper, says Gupta. Sleep makes your life narrative as cohesive as possible and moves memories from your short-term memory to your longer term memory. Which means “you have to be able to sleep well in order to remember well.” In addition, sleep acts as a “rinse cycle,” bathing your brain and “removing certain waste from the basic metabolic processes happening in the organ.”
As for how many hours of sleep you should be getting each night, Gupta recommends seven to nine—“if you can do it.” And Gupta, for one, can’t do it—at least not since the onset of the pandemic. Given his many work commitments during the past year, he’s been averaging under five hours of sleep a night. Which, he says, has taken a toll on his brain: “I’m not as clear. I’m not as happy. I’m tired. I’m not as organized … Right now I’m sitting here talking to you in my basement closet, and I don’t even know if I have my shirt on inside out or not.”