Updated: 3 days ago
By making these 4-small life-changes… you can help your brain flourish.
As any student will know, the reading list that accompanies a course module seems almost impossible to get through unless you are some kind of superior reader who lives in a cave with no digital distraction and zero social life. That certainly wasn't me, my life outside of university was busy with study, work, family, and social life. And those moments I found the enthusiasm to sit and read, were wasted because my brain was not in the right state. In fact, those extra reading materials, provided by my professors, simply became a reading list for the rest of my life.
Now things are different, and I have become a competent and perpetual consumer of content. I have learned to devour vast amounts of material every day by reading, listening, and watching, and I have discovered how to do this with a fully functioning brain. And guess what? zero “smart drugs” required. Here's how I did it:
#1 - I quit social media
Before I became a psychologist, I was in the infantry. I was a combat soldier based overseas, away from my family for over 4 years. Social media was my only connection to loved ones back home. In 2013, the tension between NATO and Russia was heightened, and the terror threat level to U.K troops was severe. We were warned about the implications of social media espionage, in other words, the exploitation of soldiers for information.
I witnessed this bring a man to tears. We were preparing to deploy to Latvia for a NATO exercise demonstrating a show of force on the Russian border, hence the heightened political tension. A close comrade of mine was duped into sharing sexual footage of himself live to an attractive female, or so he thought. There was no way of knowing who was truly on the other side of the computer screen, but it doesn’t take much to imagine.
He received a message in his inbox demanding information on our units’ movements and schedules, and if he refused, the footage would be plastered all over social media for his friends and family to see. He was haunted, I still remember the look of shock, confusion, embarrassment his pale face. As is standard procedure in most close-knit military units, the whole platoon knew, almost instantly, about his dilemma and we were there for him.
Eventually, we convinced him to report it up the chain-of-command. The advice was to ‘take it on the chin’, it was recommended that he post a warning to his social media friends preparing them for the footage. He chose not to do this, instead, he called the aggressors bluff, and sent a polite reply: “f**k you, do whatever you want with the footage”. The footage never materialized. It possible they didn't even record it, but we will never know.
Why am I sharing this story?
This was the first time I had ever been aware of the risk of having personal information publicly available on social media, especially for military personnel. There is a lot of information out there for the world to see, so being a soldier, I weighed up the pros and cons of being on social media – the ability to see what my family is up to from oversees versus the threat to myself and my family. By the way, the threat was serious. On 22nd May 2013, a British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered on the streets of London near the barracks he was based on. He had a two-year-old son. So, I decided to quit all social media.
It was like giving up smoking… for the first few weeks, I would automatically reach for my phone and slide through the dashboard looking for Facebook or Instagram. My brain craved the sensation of scrolling, scanning, and judging through the meaningless divulge of news feed posts. After a while, I stopped going to my phone unless I was actively searching for something or contacting someone. My phone no longer controlled me.
You won’t understand what this feels like until you quit, and many will claim to be in full control of their phone. Sorry to break it to you, but as long as you have social media, you couldn’t be more wrong. The big tech companies employ some of the world’s brightest minds, from psychologists, neuroscientists to computer scientists, who decipher the brain on technology and create systems that keep you hooked. You are at their mercy!
My brain lit up
After a month of no social media, I stopped carrying my phone with me, I just left it in my room unless It was completely necessary. My brain switched back on, it was like a weight of my shoulders.
The first thing I noticed was my communication skills. Both verbal and non-verbal, I could truly listen to others, without interruption or distraction and read their body-language like never before. I was able to make eye contact that helped the conversation to flourish (try having a conversation with someone that keeps looking at their phone).
I learned to break the awkward silence with conversation rather than escape to the safety of a news feed. I see people do this all the time, rather than make conversation or just embrace the silence, they feel so uncomfortable in their own mind they aimlessly scroll through social media.
My situational awareness became superb, my attention became finely tuned, my memory enhanced. I read books, a lot of books… and not just read, I completely digested what the author was attempting to argue or present.
My skills and drills as a soldier were on point, better than ever. I was top of my platoon, and top of my company, and was offered an early promotion and encouraged to go for a commission. While everyone was busy looking down, I was looking up.
By making that simple life choice, I had transformed myself to be confident, resilient, cognitively sharp, and socially perceptive. I'm not suggesting social media is all bad, there's plenty of benefit to social media. For instance, it's a great way to market new business ventures, that why at present, I only have professional accounts.
You need to weigh up the costs by thinking seriously about how social media benefits you or could the advantages of quitting outweigh those. A review article labeled the changes to our brain as "the online brain", and found multiple studies that show the online world influences our memory, attentional capacities, and social cognition.
#2 - I quit sugar
I’m serious, quitting sugar is the best nutritional decision I’ve made. Once I got through the first two weeks, my energy levels balanced out I stopped fading in the middle of the day.
Sugar plays straight into our brains' natural reward systems, which becomes tolerant to sugary, meaning you need to take more the next time to get the same effect.
The first stages of sugar detox are withdrawal, and you will crave sugar like never before. In my experience, I felt low, moody, anxious, and irritable, also my concentration was off and my sleep was messed up. This lasted two weeks, but according to the Cleveland Clinic website, sugar dependency can be kicked in 10 days.
As if by magic, everything seemed to improve. My outlook was more positive, I was no longer impatient, I had no temper flares, and my mood was stable. I was totally unaware that I was feeling sub-optimal, in other words, I had no idea sugar was affecting me until it was gone.
My experience is in line with the research, for instance, one review article published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews highlighted the links between sugar and physical and emotional crashing, dopamine spikes, and further craving. Quick aside... many of these studies are based on animal models (i.e. rats as participants) but the literature on sugar is vast, and we know enough about its impact on the human brain to translate animal research into human conditions.
After 1 month, I started noticing my cognition had sharpened. The research backs this up too, one study found high sugar consumption was associated with memory and learning impairment. More unsettling research points out the long-term risks of high sugar intake, in particular, sugary soft drinks and their link to Alzheimer’s disease.
If your interested in learning more about how sugar affects your brain, check this article out of Harvard Medical School.
#3 - I quit alcohol
You can’t beat having a few beers with friends and family. I used to enjoy pouring myself a glass of vino while burying my head in a book or getting some research done (I owe my higher grades to a bottle of red). The difficulty I found was that I wasn’t remembering much of what I was learning, this is because alcohol interferes with the brain's consolidation of new memories.
Also, drinking always led to unhealthy food choices. For instance, almost every time I drank alcohol in the evenings, I would eat late (and the chances of that meal being a salad were slim). As a consequence, the morning was groggy due to poor gut conditions and the lingering effects of booze. What's more, much of that studying from the night before was wasted, because my memory was not up to the task.
Further to this, boozing the night before meant any fitness I carried out the following day was undermined and the health benefits diluted. Keeping my body fit and strong is as important to me as keeping a sharp mind. Yet, drinking alcohol simply was not fit into this equation, so it had to go.
I didn’t quit alcohol because I thought it was problematic, instead, I gave up because it did not compute with my passion to learn and grow.
I don’t need to convince you that heavy alcohol consumption kills brain cells, and quite honestly, it's likely that a little alcohol isn't too harmful. Some individuals may benefit from light drinking. However, research published in the BMJ found excessive consumption is associated with shrinkage in brain regions responsible for learning and memory… they also found moderate drinking has little effect.
Many studies have investigated the effects of booze on brain function, and although several are undermined by experimental limitations, there are some very clear take-home messages:
Excessive alcohol use negatively impacts memory, executive function, global cognition and increases your risk of dementia.
On the flip side, abstaining from drinking can improve cognition and return the brain to normal.
Quick aside... My intention is not to never drink again, instead, I am planning to save it for special occasions. That way, I can maintain a healthy brain, and enjoy the social benefits drinking brings.
My motivation in life is knowledge and fitness. I am an obsessive consumer of content and those closest to me would agree that if I haven’t got my head in a book, I am listening to a podcast, reading (or writing) an article or watching lectures and documentary’s (oh, and I always find time for little Xbox, but hey… the benefits of gaming on cognition are insane, a story for another time perhaps).
My ambition to learn was hindered by simple daily decisions. Our brains are superbly capable but often held back by external circumstances. Once I pulled myself away from the brain glue of social media, regained control of my blood glucose levels, and cut the booze from my life, my brain switched back on, and it thanks me every day with pleasant feelings, energy, happiness, focus, clarity, motivation, and concentration.
A final word from Upmanship
Much of what has been discussed here comes down to habit formation or habit change. Breaking bad habits isn't a hard as you may think. Check out this guide the break bad habits by replacing them with new ones.