Working out your brain

academics High School study skills
By Tong

My first day in the gym was intimidating. I always thought the gym wasn’t for me, and so I had tried to avoid it as much as I could. I remember feeling slightly embarrassed as I picked up the smallest weights in the gym with my slender arms. However, overtime I was able to pick up heavier weights and noticed that my arms were slowly filling up the sleeves of my T-shirt.

The gains from working out are easily visible as muscle fibers multiply and the thickness of the fibers increase overtime. But unlike the progress made from working out your muscles, there is no easy visual measurement of the mental progress you’ve made in your brain. (If you've noticed that your head is physically getting bigger, then it is probably best to go see a medical professional). Therefore, sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to “work out” your brain when you can’t visualize the progress. However, I can assure you that progress has been made. 

Like muscle cells, changes are happening to your brain at the cellular level as you “work out” and learn new things. In fact, the brain cells (neurons) in your brain are sprouting out new dendrites (tree branch-like projections that allow your brain cells to talk to other brain cells) to more efficiently communicate with established brain cells and new brain cells. This enhancement of the neural network allows us to comprehend new concepts and more efficiently complete mental tasks such as doing physics problems. 

Like your muscles getting stronger after working out, your brain is getting smarter after working out as well. After all, our muscles and our brain are made up of cells that follow the same biological principles that govern life. As such, when it comes to working out my brain, I like to follow some of the same principles that guide my physical workouts:

Reps and Sets

At the gym, you might have heard people talk about repetitions (reps) and sets of repetition (sets) for certain exercises, such as curling a dumbbell. This concept applies to our brain too! The more times we think about something, the more efficient and faster we become at thinking about it in the future. The vast network of newly minted neural connections opens up an entire highway for information processing instead of the back country roads present before. Consequently, don’t cheat yourself by reducing the number of repetitions of certain mental exercises. Though this is true for all mental activities, you can more easily see this progress in math. I am sure you can recall from personal experience that the more practice questions you did for a certain concept, the better you became at it. 

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” - Vince Lombardi

Just like good form is important for lifting or for any physical sports, tackling questions systematically with good technique is crucial for laying down a solid foundation. Scientists follow the scientific method to guide new discoveries; doctors systemically obtain patient history by following a structure for conducting medical interviews. Seeking guidance on good techniques for approaching problems from professors and mentors is just as important as repeating a mental exercise once you have learned it. 

Rest and repair

Have you ever heard of a successful bodybuilder who works out for 8 hours straight every day? Probably not. Your muscle cells get exhausted with extensive use and will need time to repair itself. Similarly, brain cells can also get exhausted and will need some downtime as well to repair. Would you ever run 8 hours straight the day before an important track meet as preparation? Probably not. Then why spend 8 hours the day before an exam cramming to learn everything? Instead, let rest and repair work for you by spacing out that 8 hours of studying to a few hours every day over a longer period of time. Not only is the latter plan more manageable, but it is also significantly more effective at letting your brain consolidate new information. Finally, sleeping and eating well keeps both your muscles and mind functioning optimally. 

Discipline in consistency

If you have ever worked out yourself or know a friend who is devoted to the gym, you might have heard your friends say that “gains are tough, but losses are easy.” Consistency in working out is important. This principle applies to the brain as well. Your brain cells need constant tickling to prevent them from losing their dendrite connections. Here is a simple thought exercise: can you remember the names of people in one of your elementary school classes? How about the names of all your cousins, aunts and uncles? Thoughts that you think about more often tend to linger while those that you don’t think about often are more easily lost. Therefore, developing the discipline to consistently work on learning and thinking about the topics important to you is the best way to prevent the “atrophy” of your academic knowledge.

Progress takes time

Progress takes time and effort. Chris Evan’s chiseled abs did not appear the next day after his first ab day at the gym. In terms of mental workouts, the same concept applies. For example, a thorough understanding of mechanics in physics does not happen overnight. Instead, putting trust in your own consistent work and following the guidance of professors and mentors is the most effective way to get those chiseled minds of a physics wizard. Working up weights is a great way to gauge physical strength. Working up different practice questions is a great way to gauge mental progress. Being able to start a question even without being able to answer it fully is progress enough as a benchmark to beat the next time around. Everyone struggles in the beginning, but perseverance will get you to a point where you will be proud of how far you have come. 

I am a firm believer that no one is born being good at a specific subject, just like no one comes out of the womb being able to bench 200 pounds. Consequently, it was silly of me to think that the gym wasn’t for me before I even put in any effort. Similarly, it would be silly for a person to claim that they are naturally bad at a specific subject before they have tried the “work out” regimen that has worked for others. That being said, the sure way to strengthen the mind in any subject is the determination and motivation to “work out” the brain just like your muscles. I hope this analogy can serve as a framework for developing good habits and mental workout regimens so that you can flex in the mirrors of academia. 

Thomas earned his BS in Chemistry at Duke. He is currently an MD/PhD at Harvard-MIT. In the Harvard Immunology Program, he is studying how the immune system responds to severe viral infections such as COVID-19


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