Recently, I had the honor of participating in a TEDx Talk about the power of the human brain.
TED is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization devoted to spreading big ideas -- from science to business to global issues -- that deepen our understanding of the world around us. Notably, numerous TEDx Talks focus on the future of space exploration and its many potential benefits for mankind.
In my talk, though, I encourage Americans to turn their focus inward. Truly, some of the most fascinating scientific discoveries today have to do with the world within us: our brains. With all due respect to Star Trek, outer space is not the only "final frontier." Understanding and maximizing the potential of the human brain is also an important -- and still largely uncharted -- frontier of discovery.
Consider that the brain is the most powerful, most staggeringly complex electro-biochemical machine ever created. Above and behind our eyes are 100 billion neurons in a small calcium shell, laced with organic pumps, channels and switches. Until recently, this complicated organ was thought to be static and unchangeable. Far from it.
Our research shows that the brain is dynamic, adaptable, flexible, and repairable. This knowledge, along with a strong commitment to applying what we have learned, has the potential to dramatically improve the mental capacity of all Americans, regardless of age, even those who have experienced brain illness or injury. Just like a mentally-challenged young man who inspired me to focus my attention and efforts on the incredible potential of the human mind. He could not speak or communicate, but yet he was able to comprehend and problem solve in a way that defied his diagnosis.
My 30+ year career in brain science and at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas that I founded has led to the development of seven scientifically-validated secrets anyone can implement to improve brain performance. They are secrets because they challenge conventional wisdom and today's societal pressures.
You might be surprised at how much of the 7-Secret advice is counter to how people live and work. In truth, the frenetic, distracted way we live in 21st century America is not conducive to good brain health or performance.
While the descriptions below are tailored to working-age adults, 7-Secret Thinking is also highly beneficial to others. Teens growing up in poverty, healthy older adults and those experiencing cognitive decline, and those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury are all benefiting by engaging in 7-Secret Thinking.
Secret 1: Start single tasking. For those who proudly identify as multitaskers, understand that your brain is not built to perform two tasks at the same time -- instead, it must switch quickly from task to unrelated task. Multitasking tires the brain and activates stress hormones. Giving your full attention to the project at hand will increase accuracy, innovation and speed.
Secret 2: Limit information. Thanks to our technology-driven and uber-connected world, the sheer volume of information we are exposed to every day is nearly 200 times more than we were exposed to 20 years ago! Research shows this information overload comes at a price. High-performing minds are more efficient at knowing what to block out and what to keenly pay attention to. Limit what you take in to enhance your brain's natural ability to block out what does not matter.
Secret 3: Detox distractions. On average, individuals work for three minutes at a time before being interrupted. Complicating matters, technology is actually rewiring our brains to be addicted to interruption, as we anxiously wait for the next ping signaling a new email, text or social media post. By silencing your phone and computer and closing your office door, you can actually accelerate your brain's ability to complete tasks.
Secret 4: Think big. Designed to shift between details and the big picture, the brain is overwhelmed by too much focus on details and minutiae. Taking the time to think about a problem or idea from the 10,000-foot view will shift your perspective and strengthens brain systems to generate high level ideas and transformative solutions. Our research has shown that doing so strengthens brain systems at multiple levels of health.
Secret 5: Calibrate mental effort. Mental energy, like physical energy, can be depleted. Prioritize your day by focusing effort on the most important tasks while your brain is at peak operating power, usually at the beginning of the day.
Secret 6: Innovate. Stepping outside your routine is important to brain health and performance. Our brains seek novelty and innovation, so challenge yourself to expand your knowledge and learn new skills.
Secret 7: Motivate. While it is important to learn new skills, the brain is happiest when exploring areas you are passionate about. Focusing on what motivates and matters to you actually increases your rate of learning.
I am confident that practicing 7-Secret Thinking can enhance the cognitive abilities of nearly everyone, and look forward to future applications of our research. I am grateful to TED for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate that exploration of inner space, the brain, can uniquely and positively change all our lives.