Get smart: increase your brain power

Siski Green ( 03 November 2015 )

What can you do to make the most of your little grey cells and boost your brain power?

Brain boosting method: meditation


'Tuning out' thoughts while awake has a physical effect on the brain. According to Harvard and Yale researchers, meditation increases the brain’s thickness in the parts that deal with attention andprocessing external information.

Is it for you?

If the thought of sitting in the lotus position and chanting doesn’t appeal, don’t worry. Meditation can take place wherever you feel comfortable, so long as it’s quiet. 

Although it’s not a difficult skill to master, you will need some training or advice to help you clear your mind of all thoughts. If you’re willing to put a bit of time in, though, you can learn to do it anywhere at any time.


Meditation can be a great way to unwind. It reduces stress, improves mood and sharpens your mind.

Find out more about meditation with our guide

Brain boosting method: omega-3 oil


Fish aren’t renowned for their brain power, but the oil contained within them could improve your mental clarity. One study among many, undertaken at the University of Siena in Italy, found that people who took omega-3 supplements had improved mood and cognition. The researchers concluded that a diet rich in fish oil is associated with better attention, and improved complex cortical processing. In layman’s terms, that means eating fish oil helps keep the cogs in your mind functioning smoothly.

Is it for you?

The official recommendation is to eat two or three servings of cold-water fish, such as herring, fresh tuna, salmon, or mackerel per week, and if you do then you’ll already be experiencing the benefits of omega-3s. 

"Other foods rich in the oil are pumpkin seeds, walnuts and flaxseed, though the omega-3s from fish are easier for the body to use than those from these vegetarian sources," says nutritionist Carina Norris. "It's a good idea to get as much omega-3 from your diet as you can, but in order to consume enough to get the full heart and brain benefits, you'll probably need to take a supplement."


Not all omega-3 supplements are created equal. "There are several different kinds of omega-3, not all of which have identical benefits," says Norris. "EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA – docosahexaenoic acid, are the two most important forms and it’s these you should look for on the label."

Where to get omega-3 if you don't like fish

Brain boosting method: running, cycling or dancing


"Randomised, controlled trials have shown that aerobic exercise increases cognitive function – especially the speed of mental processing and our ability to pay attention to things – in healthy, sedentary elders," says Professor Deborah Barnes, of the University of California, who has studied the effects of exercise on the brain. 

It may also help prevent 'executive function' decline in people over 70, says Barnes. Executive functioning includes focusing on a task, short-term memory and the ability to judge social situations and behave appropriately within them.

Is it for you?

With side effects such as a flatter stomach, a stronger heart and reduced risk of disease, this is one brain-booster everyone should try.


Do it. Sign up for a class at your nearest gym, cycle or jog with your partner or a friend, or just stick on some music and get down to it in your living room.

Which activity has the most health benefits? Find out with our guide

Brain boosting method: brain training


You can exercise your brain just like any other muscle. Studies on rodents and monkeys have shown that if they play with toys they learn more easily, have bigger brains and brain cells. 

Another recent study conducted by Kings College London, published in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-term Care Medicine, found that playing online games that challenge reasoning and memory skills – brain training - could have significant benefits for older people in their day-to-day lives. The study was funded by the Alzheimer's Society and involved almost 7,000 adults aged over 50. You can try out their demo game at

Is it for you?

Brain training in the form of learning a new language, playing Sudoku or even video games, is most likely to be effective on people who have repetitive and un-stimulating day jobs.


The best activities challenge you in ways you’re not accustomed to, encouraging your brain to create new neural pathways. If you work with numbers, sign up to learn French; if you’re a salesperson, try something that requires visual-spatial skills such as carpentry; or if you work in computer technology, take an art class.

Find out more about how playing games can boost your health

Visit our free games and puzzles section

Brain boosting method: caffeine


You probably don’t need boffins to tell you that caffeine keeps you awake, but what may surprise you is that research also shows it can impair certain types of brain function. Researchers at the University of California found that although caffeine improved alertness and concentration, it slowed motor learning and verbal memory.

Is it for you?

Coffee is such a part of our everyday culture that we tend to forget it’s an addictive stimulant, not so different in its physical effects from illegal amphetamines! It causes the release of adrenalin, which is what makes you feel awake. And caffeine also affects dopamine levels, giving you a mild 'high'. 

If you drink more than three cups of coffee a day or five of tea (around 300mg) and stop suddenly, you’ll probably experience withdrawal symptoms. Thankfully not as severe as if you suddenly quit cocaine or heroin, though still unpleasant. Expect to experience fatigue, irritability and headaches.


Caffeine has a half life of about six hours, which means that if you drink a large cup of coffee at 3pm you’ve still got the equivalent of half a cup circulating in your blood stream when you’re beginning to get ready for sleep. 

"If you must use caffeine to get through the day, have one cup at around 11am as a pick-me-up," says Norris. "That will give you a through-lunch boost but won’t keep you awake at night."

Find out more about how tea and coffee affect your health

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