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Simple Tools to Increase Your Brain Power

There are a number of ways to increase your cognitive abilities, including the many exercises, mental habits and dietary suggestions found in the hundreds of pages of this website. But the brainpower boosters that we tend to forget about and under-value are those which are essentially external extensions of our brains. The most obvious example used to be having a good library of reference materials, such as a set of encyclopedias.

In recent years the external tool that does the most to immediately expand the range of most people's knowledge - and therefore increase the useful power of their minds - is perhaps the internet. It might even be fairer to say that it is Google, since the efficient use of the resources online requires a way to easily find and access them. You currently have a thousand encyclopedias and other resources at your fingertips and available in seconds, something most people couldn't imagine a few decades ago.

In the past, if you wanted a good basic understanding of a subject you might have had to subscribe to and wait for magazines, make several trips to the library, and even visit those who had the most knowledge in a given area. This process could take weeks, months or even years. Now you can spend a long weekend of intensive online study and have a basic grasp of a new subject area.

What's more, even in an area in which you are well-read or an expert, you can quickly grab data that you need to research or write about something. This two-minute process might have previously involved waiting a day or two for a library to open, and then spending an hour driving there and searching the books. Now you get what you need to use and then quickly move your thoughts on to other matters, perhaps to more fully develop a theory or idea. In other words, you increase your brain power just by the sheer efficiency that is possible with these tools.

An Even Simpler Tool to Increase Your Brainpower

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, inspired me to write this page. I was looking through the book yesterday at a local bookstore/coffee shop. Gawande is a surgeon and writer who suggests that we can reduce or eliminate many of our accidents, mistakes, disasters and failures in health care, law, government, finances and more, by using simple checklists. He uses numerous true stories and research to demonstrate this. For example, he shows how a checklist saved a drowning victim who was under water for thirty minutes, and how a cleanliness checklist in intensive care units in Michigan virtually eliminated a type of deadly hospital infection.

It occurred to me that the checklist is essentially external programming for our brains. As Gawande points out in his book, we often know all the steps to take to accomplish something, but life is complex enough that we forget one or two of them once in a while. Our brains need the help of a checklist to make that knowledge work for us. Doctors in one hospital he writes about were forgetting at least one of the steps necessary for safely completing a particular procedure. Once a checklist was used consistently, the rate of the deadly infections that are cause by mistakes in this procedure dropped by more than two thirds, saving many patient's lives.

I recall working in a restaurant twenty-five years ago. All of us employees were having trouble remembering all the things that had to be done at the end of each night. Amazingly, despite the almost daily reprimands that came each following day, nobody had a simple checklist for the thirty or so tasks that needed to be done. As soon as I was in management, I made one and left a copy for every night shift to check off as they closed down the restaurant. Simple as that.

When military planes became more complicated during World War Two, pilots could still manage to fly them. Humans can be trained to do astoundingly complicated things. What they can't do very consistently is is remember every step of a complicated (or even simple) procedure every time they do it. Unless, that is, they have an external memory - a checklist. After they were introduced, pre-flight checklists were credited with preventing many plane crashes.

A good checklist is a valuable tool, but not necessarily easy to perfect. If it is too long it may be ignored or lead to time delays that cause their own problems (we don't want a brain surgeon pausing to work through a 200-item checklist). If it is too short important items might be forgotten. Try to include those things that are most crucial and/or most commonly forgotten.

A simple to-do list is another great brain power booster, at least if you consider the power of your brain to be not just in the amount of thoughts it can think, but also in what it can actually translate into action. Writing down your goals is another of these cheap and easy-to-use tools. Notes that are displayed on your computer desktop can remind you of basic principles and ideas that will improve your thinking.

An example of the latter is the list of questions I used to keep handy. They included, "What other perspective can this be seen from?" and "What parts of this are crucial?" and similar questions designed to keep my mind seeking out new ideas and better understandings.

Lists, reminders, statements of principle, checklists, and search engines are all free and simple tools you can use to increase your brain power and to help you translate that power into real-word results. See if you can find a few areas where they might help you.


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