When I was in physical therapy school I would always take a moment after each semester to reflect on just how much information had made it into my brain. I was always amazed by the sheer volume (memorizing, in just a few months, the origins, insertions, actions and innervations for 642 muscles … for starters. Crazy, right?)
Given the need to get all of that information into your brain in a short amount of time, don’t you wish you knew a few strategies to boost brain power to make it just a little bit easier? This series will address several tactics physical therapy students can use to improve learning and excel at school.
Our brains are limited in the amount of power they have. Researchers have found this has to do with the metabolic requirements of the brain. It takes a lot of oxygen and glucose just to survive (about 20% of what the body has). When we ask the brain to do work, like talk and think and learn and decide, there is a sort of self-limiting brain energy capacity.
The brain is only capable of so much, before it reaches its metabolic limit. So, what is a physical therapy student to do? Let’s start with those cardinal rules for brain power; get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. To the extent that you can accomplish these, you are starting off on the right foot. What else is there?
How about giving up decisions for better grades?
Several social scientists and neurobiologists in the last few decades have shown that when we make decisions, even small ones, such as what to eat or what to wear, we deplete our brain’s capacity to perform other functions. Every time we use our brain to pick a sandwich from the deli menu, we are less able to, say, memorize a muscle attachment later on that day.
To combat this limitation, productivity experts and brain scientists alike recommend automating or routinizing your life as much as possible. Spend less time dealing with the mundane tasks of everyday life, to leave more brain capacity for the important stuff. The goal is to spend less effort trying to remember where you left your keys, or figuring out what to wear each day, or keeping track of monthly bills, and more time and brain energy on activities that will allow you to achieve at higher levels.
Stop deciding what to wear.
If it is hard for you to imagine that this works, consider some of the most successful people in the United States, and what they choose to wear. Let’s start with the late Steve Jobs. As soon as you read his name, could you picture anything else but him in jeans and his trademark black mock turtleneck? How about Mark Zuckerberg? Can you picture him wearing anything other than jeans and a grey t-shirt with a hoodie? No on both counts? That’s because they don’t wear anything else nearly every day of their lives. They have made conscious decisions to stop deciding what they should wear. Instead they spend that brain capital on concepts and products that have revolutionized the way we live. Not a bad trade.
Before you argue that only men can get away with this, consider Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, and designers like Vera Wang, who wear the same thing every day. Some fashion experts would argue that you are not being boring; you are creating a signature look. And it’s hard to argue with a signature outfit that fits well, and makes you feel comfortable. Think: several of the same style of shirts and pants, that are different colors. This doesn’t mean that you can’t rock a slammin’ outfit just because you feel like it. But you will get the most brain power for your buck if your everyday wardrobe is automatic.
Stop deciding what to eat.
What about lunch; do you spend a few minutes or more every day deciding between the cafeteria and a restaurant, and more time once you get there on what to order from the menu?
At dinner time do you come home and stare into your cabinets and fridge wondering what to make? Or worse, are you stopping at the grocery store on the way home just zig-zagging through the store trying to decide on something?
What would you do with all of that time and brain energy if you didn’t have to decide all those things every day? Learn all the special tests for the hip? Commit to memory all of the potential gait deviations in a patient with a lower extremity prosthesis? Memorize all of the possible reactions and outcomes when introducing exercise in a patient with diabetes?
Consider what I do as an example. For every night of the week, I have a meal category. For example, on Mondays we have soup and salad, on Thursdays it’s “brinner” (breakfast food for dinner – my kids’ favorite!), and Sundays it’s vegetable stir fry. I make a list on Sunday of the specific meals we’ll have during the week, including what I need to make them, and go to the grocery store every Monday night. Also on the grocery list automatically? Those staples we need to buy every week, like milk, apples and baby carrots. I know I’ll never run out of those things, and I don’t need to remember or decide to buy them.
One of the most effective parts of this strategy, is that I always make double the amount of food we need for dinner, and we all take the leftovers the next day for lunch. There’s one more decision I don’t have to make, and I can reserve my brain power for writing stimulating blog posts.
I’m not suggesting that you have to have your whole life planned out, and certainly you can break your own rules whenever you feel like it. For instance, you may have decided to eat cereal every morning, to eliminate making that decision; that doesn’t mean that you can’t stop at a bagel shop once in a while.
One way to accomplish this strategy is to apply it during the week, and to do what you want on the weekends. Whatever works for you.
So, give automation a try. Always put your keys in the same place, eat and wear the same things every day and definitely check out the next article in this series: “Rock Beats Scissors, Scissors Cut Paper, Paper Covers Brain,” where we discuss the power of the pen, and how to use it to improve information retention.