Step 6: Upgrade Your Brain, Improve Your Cognition
By: Dave Asprey
July 4, 2012
Your intelligence is infinite.
Intelligence is not fixed. Studies have shown repeatedly that with training, supplements, and time – intelligence can always be increased. Neuroplasticity – your ability to reshape your nervous system and brain – is proven to exist and we even know how to increase it.
However, your mindset often dictates your boundaries of intellectual capacity. How you think and perceive the world impacts your intelligence and ability to rise to a challenge. You can see clear examples in the effects of stereotype threat as well as studies on what children are told about their performance.
People who believe intelligence is fixed are the ones who never reach their full potential. The people who believe they can achieve anything will outperform and may very well achieve anything. In a fascinating EEG study of 480 trials at Michigan State University, researchers found that participants who thought they could raise their intelligence performed far better than those who thought they couldn’t.
I’ve been brain hacking even longer than I’ve been hacking my body. To share all of my secrets would take an entire book (anther project I’m working on). In the meantime, here are my top five methods for increasing brain function. Think of this as getting a software update.
1. Challenge Your Brain
Before you get into the fancy techniques, focus on challenging your mind in new ways every day. Take a new route to work, learn a new language, read a challenging book, or start a new project. Most entrepreneurs don’t have a problem with this, but many people go through their day without any kind of mental stimulation. Studies have shown that people who continually challenge their brains with even the smallest tasks live longer and retain their brain function until the very end. Keep your curiosity engaged and ask yourself, “why?” in exactly the way a 3 year old would.
2. Dual N-Back Training
Now we’re getting into the cool stuff.
This software program consists of 20 minute computer lessons designed to challenge every part of your brain necessary to boost your cognition. Dual N-Back Training was the focus of our article titled “How To Add 2.75 IQ Points Per Hour of Training.” A person I coach increased his IQ 18 points, and I increased mine 12 points with this method alone. Considering all the other techniques I’ve used over the years prior to Dual N-Back training, that’s a massive increase.
Dual N-Back Training improves memory, problem solving, imagination, and REM sleep. There are some open source versions of Dual N-Back Training such as Brain Workshop that you can download for free.
It takes about a month of daily exercise. Your brain won’t like it at first – you will get bored and frustrated and probably have strange dreams. But when you’re done, you won’t know how you functioned with only half the working memory you just gained. It’s that strong, like a RAM upgrade for your brain.
These are nutrients that have a specific medicinal or pharmacological effect. Nutraceuticals are usually compounds made by the body or plant based. They’re more natural than other drugs and are good for beginners who are apprehensive at the thought of taking a “drug.”
These are all effective brain enhancers that can be purchased for relatively cheap.
Acetyle-L-carnitine (ALC) crosses the blood-brain barrier where it acts as a powerful antioxidant. It acts on both acetylcholine and dopamine function. ALC is neuroprotective and works as a powerful cognitive enhancer. While most studies have been done on rodents, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s effectiveness in humans. Some other interesting benefits are better sperm motility and as a treatment for heart dysfunction. It supercharges your mitochondria which helps your entire system, not just your body.
Krill Oil (EPA/DHA)
I discussed the omega-3’s back in Step 2, so I won’t go into great detail here. These two omega-3 fatty acids are essential for proper brain function and development. They can improve memory, executive thought processes, and are neuroprotective. However, the need for these fats is low, about 350mg a day if you have an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats from your diet. It’s important to supplement especially if you eat omega-6 oils (nuts and seed oils). I prefer krill oil to fish oil.
MCT oil turns on your body’s fat burning mode and helps your brain to run more efficiently. It is one of my favorite ways to have more energy, both in my brain and my body. A physician, Dr. Mary Newport, recently used MCT from coconut oil to reverse her husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript for free here. When you start using MCT oil, start slowly to allow your body to get used to this much energy this quickly.
Coffee isn’t just caffeine, but caffeine by itself can give you a massive boost in brain power. Caffeine can improve short term memory, alertness, and cognitive function.
A good dose is around 20mg per hour. If you’re taking a big test, you can take one large hit. Studies have shown caffeine can be almost as effective as Modafinil, another supplement I’m about to tell you about. A cup of coffee supplies 95-200 mg of caffeine. Studies have shown caffeine mainly improves your ability to perform less demanding work like simple math problems and organization, may improve mood and has little effect on things like systems thinking and other complicated stuff.
However, if you brew them properly, Upgraded Coffee beans contains two potent brain anti-inflammatory agents, cafestrol and kawehol, which can boost cognitive performance differently than caffeine, especially if you have inflammation in your body. Most coffee has a chemical residue left over from the fermentation process, and this residue (called mycotoxin) has a negative impact on brain function.
Prepared with butter and MCT, Bulletproof Coffee is my favorite adaptogenic herb and my top rated smart “nutraceutical.” I literally have this every day.
4. Smart Drugs (nootropics)
Nootropics from the “racetam” family are some of the most trusted and widely used. I rely on Aniracetam because it’s fat soluble, fastest acting, and has effects on memory I/O, creativity, and stress. The “racetam” family of nootropics is known for improving mitochondrial function and oxygen in the brain.
Most of the research has been done on people with neurological problems (with amazing results), but there is plenty of good evidence to support it’s use in healthy individuals. A double blind placebo controlled trial showed the oldest racetam, piracetam, improved verbal memory in healthy college students.
I’ve used piracetam and aniracetam for years, but I like the next smart drug even more.
This is one of the smart drugs closest to my heart, err, brain. I’ve used this for years for everything from studying at Wharton to working on a start-up that sold for $600 million dollars. I’ve recommended it to countless friends with massive results, and you may have seen me on ABC Nightline or CNN talking about using it for executive performance. Modafinil improves memory and mood, reduces impulsive decision making, increases your resistance to fatigue, and even improves brain function during sleep debt. I’m more inclined to believe people suffer from Modafinil deficiency, rather than it being a supplement. It doesn’t work for everyone, but if it works for you, you’ll love it.
Huperzine A is an alkaloid found in the plant moss Huperzia serrota. This plant has been used medicinally for headaches, swelling, fever, and blood disorders by the Chinese for centuries. It enhances memory, increases nerve growth, and protects against Alzheimer’s. It also increases REM sleep. But beware; it raises acetylcholine levels, which is helpful in 2/3 of people, but harmful in those who are choline dominant (like me). Watch out for a clenching jaw or headaches – if you get those, stop taking it, and double up on Aniracetam until the symptoms go away. (the racetams lower choline, which is a good thing if you have too much!)
Upgraded Aging Formula contains stabilized oxaloacetate, which is a part of the kreb’s cycle that powers your cells’ energy production. It has hugely positive effects on blood sugar control and mimics caloric restriction, but the real win for your brain is that it protects brain cells from excess glutamate. High levels of glutamate are neurodestructive – and you get some every time you eat restaurant food, because restaurants hide MSG in lots of dishes (legally) because people who eat MSG almost always order more drinks and dessert to counteract the blood sugar plunge from the MSG. Sneaky but legal. Upgraded Aging has other metabolic effects around blood sugar too.
Improving your sleep is one of the best ways to boost your brain power. Without enough REM sleep, you increase neurodegeneration and decrease your ability to perform on a day to day basis.
I wrote about ways to improve your sleep in Step 5.
Just when you thought the only similarity between body builders and nerds was their secret obsession with World of Warcraft – it turns out they also take some of the same supplements. Creatine helps you lift more weight, both mentally and physically. Your brain uses creatine to perform synapses, and studies have shown that it improves your brain function, especially in vegetarians who are almost guaranteed to be creatine deficient. The study referenced above used 5 grams per day, which is a good starting place for improving brain function.
Increasing your brain power is not just something for executives and nerds – it’s for anyone with a brain. Imagine if you almost never forgot things. Imagine managing more tasks than you ever dreamed possible without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. No more forgetting where you put your keys or leaving behind papers for work.
That’s the main list! Upgrading your brain makes life a lot simpler. Try it!