Meditation is an ancient practice that rests on training your brain to focus its attention on the present moment, rather than the past or future. Studies suggest that using this technique over time can increase your ability to sustain attention. Recent research shows that even short-term use of this technique, when done properly, can help you concentrate, as well as improve visuospatial processing (how objects are shaped and arranged in a given area), working memory, and executive functioning.
Meditate. It’s easy:
Step 1: Chill out
Find a relaxing and comfortable position. You can meditate anywhere, even lying in bed or sitting at your desk.
Step 2: Inhale, exhale
Without changing your natural breathing in any way, focus your attention on it. Try not to think about anything else.
Step 3: Pay attention
If your mind wanders, which it inevitably will, bring your attention back to your breath as soon as you notice.
Step 4: Make it a habit
Do this for five to 10 minutes every day. It might feel awkward at first, but soon you’ll learn to ignore those thoughts.
Step 5: Get sharp
When you need to focus, tune in to your breathing. Now you have your mind’s attention and can turn it to whatever you need.
Half of Americans believe games like crossword puzzles and Sudoku keep them sharp. These cerebral pastimes may indeed improve something called working memory—your ability to recall things in the short term—but only because that skill is inherent to solving the puzzles themselves. You’re not improving your overall brain health; you’re just getting better at solving the puzzles. The connection between games and long-term memory improvement is tenuous at best.
One 2014 study on 488 residents of the Bronx did find that crossword participation delayed memory decline by more than 2.5 years, but dementia patients with this advantage saw an even sharper drop in cognitive function after that point. In other words, tackling word challenges might have some sort of benefit when it comes to keeping the mind nimble, but eventually your age will catch up with you.
Still, since the media multitasking most of us do seems to have a detrimental effect on our ability to focus, a round of Sudoku could benefit you simply by pulling you away from your screen.
Scientists still aren’t sure why brain training only works for some people.
3. Access your “Memory Palace”
Here’s how memory athletes stuff their noggins with so much knowledge:
Pick a familiar place
Advanced athletes use dozens of locations, but you should start with one that you know well, like your front porch, or the inside of your office.
Chart a cognitive course
Plan a route through that place, numbering each step at a specific landmark. If there isn’t a path from spot to spot that feels logical to you, try moving counterclockwise.
Make a list
Place words along your mental route. If you need to buy eggs and bread, you might imagine a basket of eggs on the porch stairs and a loaf swinging from the doorknob. Absurd imagery is easier to remember than something realistic, so be creative.
Practice, practice, practice
See how much of your list you can remember by superimposing it onto your memory palace. It will be difficult, but the more you try, the easier it will become. In time, you should be able to memorize just about any grouping of letters and numbers.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 Intelligence issue of Popular Science.