Hack your brain: 3 ways to sharpen your focus


get smart

Is it really possible to improve your brain power?

I wish that I’d asked this question a long time ago.   Surprisingly (to me, at least), the answer is “Yes!”  Now that I’ve learned these relatively simple hacks, my productivity and work quality have improved dramatically.  If I knew 10 years ago what I know now, I’d have written dozens of books, completed far more of my own research, and launched a few dozen enterprises.  And that’s not meant as hyperbole.

We’ve come a long way from the days when “intelligence quotient” was the only metric by which we measured human cognition.  While we used to rely primarily on pattern recognition, today’s neuroscientists understand that general intelligence (g)  is comprised of a number of individual factors like fluid reasoning, visual and auditory processing, working memory, attention control, long-term storage and retrieval, and cognitive processing speeds, among others.

While the specific factors that make up our overall intelligence are pretty firmly fixed by genetics and other factors that we can’t change, there are some important tune-ups that can help us to get the most horsepower   If you ignore these hacks and the science behind them, you can rest assured that many of your peers and competitors will not.

Sharpen your focus, raise your income…

If you’re skeptical because you’ve read that intelligence is inherited from your mother, or that g is fixed by genetic factors, or you otherwise just don’t believe that there’s anything you can do to improve your cognitive performance, keep reading.  The jury is not out on this topic – intelligence IS heritable, but that does not mean that you typically perform at your peak capacity.  You may not be able to transform yourself from dull normal to genius, but you CAN boost your cognition in ways that will improve your performance including the quality and quantity of your work regardless of what work you do.

Intelligence, as measured by IQ, correlates very well with income and it is a good predictor of family stability.   Several studies also link IQ below 90 with criminal behavior, and at least one researcher believes that societies with low average IQ can’t sustain a democratic form of government.

Beyond the obvious immediate benefits, once you reach the age of 65, your chances of developing dementia due to Alzheimer’s or other disorders are about one in ten.   You can dramatically reduce those odds by following the recommendations laid out below.

So if you CAN raise your IQ, or g, and reduce your chances of dementia, hopefully, it seems obvious that you SHOULD.

Not only will you be better off, society as a whole will be better off.   And the more of us that value our minds and work to improve them, the better our families, neighborhoods, and whole cultures will become. So don’t just follow these methods for yourself, pass them along to anyone that might be interested.

But wait – it’s NOT a no-brainer

Improving the way your mind works has always been within our grasp.   Getting a STEM degree, learning a new skill, and solving complex problems are all ways in which we improve our cognition.   People have been leveraging their brain power for as long as there have been people and that’s why we have smartphones, bullet trains, and the ISS.

While the hacks I’m going to share with you are simple, not all of them are easy.  We’ve often heard the brain compared to a muscle.  While brain tissue is nothing at all like muscle tissue, they both improve their performance when they are exercised.  Be prepared to put some effort into improving your intelligence.  Just like bodybuilders that work out for hours each day, you’ll see better results with better effort.

You should keep in mind that human intelligence is a composite of the factors I mentioned above along with a few others.  These factors are sharpened to varying degrees the brain hacking techniques I’ll share with you below.

Some of thems are as simple as taking a pill.  Others require more effort.  In general, you’ll see better results in the long term than you will in the short term.  Persevere.

The five best brain hacks to sharpen your mind

1. Brain-boosting supplements.

Yes, I know that the supplement industry is rife with poor quality products, unsupported claims, unscrupulous advertising, and bad science.  At least some of those shortcomings can be applied to many other sectors of the economy, including the pharmaceutical industry.   But that doesn’t mean that all supplements are always bad.  There are a number of non-prescription substances that have been proven to boost cognitive performance and either slow or reduce cognitive decline.  Here are my top three:

a)  Sunflower lecithin –

Lecithin makes up about one-third of our brains.  It’s a type of fat, so if you’re ever called a fat-head, don’t feel bad.   Besides fat, lecithin contains a compound that our bodies require in order to produce acetylcholine, a vital neurotransmitter.  Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that allow impulses to be passed between the neurons in our brains.

Studies have shown that phosphatidylcholine, one of the several phospholipids in lecithin, can stimulate neurogenesis which includes the growth of new brain cells as well as creating new neural connections even in older adults.  There are almost too many benefits to list without making lecithin sound like snake oil, but it’s not.

Lecithin and phosphatidylcholine are in many foods, including eggs, meat (especially liver), nuts, and seeds.  But it’s nearly impossible to get the levels that create the best results through diet alone.  You’ll need to supplement, and lecithin from sunflowers seems to be much better than lecithin from soy.  NOW produces very reasonably priced gel capsules that contain 1200 milligrams (mg) of lecithin derived from sunflowers.  You can purchase them from Amazon for less than $12 for 200 caps. They contain 420 mg of phosphatidylcholine, along with a number of other phospholipids that have a range of benefits.   Country Life produces soft gels with 1200 mg of phosphatidylcholine alone.  Because there are other physiological benefits associated with sunflower lecithin, I’ve elected to take it instead of the phosphatidylcholine by itself.  The results have thus far been better than I expected.

Among the benefits you should experience from taking a phosphatidylcholine supplement are increased mental focus, improved memory, faster learning, improved motor skills, and better sleep patterns.   These results were confirmed in a 1975 study conducted by MIT.

Other research indicates that sunflower lecithin also helps heal liver tissue, and reduces joint and other internal inflammation.  Sunflower lecithin and phosphatidylcholine are very nearly too good to be true, but the effects are very real and the cost is minimal.

b) Fish Oil – Omega 3

You may have heard the old saying that fish is “brain food”.  There are many examples of folk wisdom that are nothing more than hearsay or urban legend, but several studies have shown very conclusively that Omega 3 improves brain function.  At least one study has found that fish oil and omega 3 supplementation correspond with higher volumes of brain matter in areas shown to be connected with memory and higher cognitive functions.  And yes, size DOES matter with brains, too, especially when the larger parts are involved with memory and cognition.

Fish oil contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3 fatty acid, that has been shown to be important for both heart health and neural function.  Unfortunately, there are some potential problems with fish oil supplements.  Some studies have shown a potential link between fish oil supplements and some types of cancer, including prostate cancer.

And since some supplements use low-quality fish from questionable sources,  an injudicious purchase may give you more than you bargained for.  But because Omega 3 oils, including DHA, are found in seeds and oils, like flax seed, flax seed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and in many types of fish and seafood, you can experience cognitive enhancement and slow or even reversed cognitive decline by eating more of those foods, thus reduce the need for supplements.

If you want to try a supplement, Carlson Labs Very Finest Fish Oil is not a bad choice.  It’s not the cheapest, but I’ve found it to be of high quality, and my memory and clarity improve noticeably when I take it.  I try to limit my intake to two teaspoons full 3 days per week, less if I’m eating lots of omega 3-rich foods.

Carlson Labs also makes soft gels that may be easier for some people to get down.  They contain 800 mg per capsule, so you’ll have to choke down 3 to get the recommended 2,000 mg.

c) Curcumin   

Curcumin is a component of turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its color.

Indians have used turmeric literally for millennia, not just as a spice but also as a powerful medicine.

If you don’t take any other supplements either because of the cost, inconvenience, your own skepticism, or just plain obstinance, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor if you overcome whatever obstacles are preventing you from taking supplements.  This one does far more than just improve brain health.  And while I’m a big fan of healthy skepticism, if that’s what’s stopping you, it’s anything but healthy in this case.

In fairness to skeptics, the claims made about turmeric and curcumin are so broad and audacious that it’s hard not to dismiss them out of hand.  But an increasing body of research is bearing out many of even the more outlandish claims.

When it comes to brain health, curcumin’s benefits have not been studied as thoroughly as some of its other nearly miraculous properties.  Based on my own experience and curcumin’s  documented ability to stimulate the brain’s production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (a compound that causes the brain to produce more brain cells) it’s a vital part of a brain health regimen.    While that’s a pretty big benefit, it has also been shown to act as an anti-depressant.  These are two potent ingredients for increased intelligence and clearer thinking.  For just under $18 you can get Bio Schwartz’ turmeric with bioperine.

Although you can get curcumin by itself, there are other compounds in turmeric that seem to have a certain synergy, so I prefer turmeric.  The bioperine, which is essentially black pepper, helps your body to absorb the beneficial components by orders of magnitude, so however you choose to add turmeric and curcumin to your daily regimen, make sure to include pepper (aka piperine or bioperine).

Turmeric and curcumin should be part of every diet or supplement regimen.  If you doubt it, read this article listing 10 reasons that you should be taking it every day.  And there are no side effects, as far as is known, so don’t hesitate to start taking it today.

2. Brain Training

Here’s where a little effort can go a long way.  And while it may not sound like it, it can be a lot of fun.

Because competition for bright minds is fierce in both academia and commerce, the race to find ways to sharpen our minds has become just as fierce.  Naturally, that means that there are lots of unrealistic claims made about cognitive enhancement from various brain training programs.  And there are lots of programs.   Lumosity is one of the leaders in this pack, largely because they’ve invested heavily in a variety of promotional campaigns. To their credit, Lumosity’s website doesn’t make outlandish claims about the results that users achieve, although some of that may be implied in their advertising.   Lumosity has lots of competition, and while it’s possible that some of the games and exercises that Lumosity and other brain training websites offer can really improve your cognition, there is a lone stand out brain training exercise that has been shown by conclusive studies to actually improve general intelligence.  It’s called dual n-back training.

The n-back concept was introduced in 1958 by psychologist Dr. Wayne Kirchner, not as a brain training method, but as a way of measuring working memory.  Dr. Kirchner’s original method involved presenting a subject with a sequential series of shapes, letters, or sounds.  The participant was then asked to indicate when a current pattern matched an earlier one some number (n) of steps back in the sequence.  Hence the name n-back.

in 2003, Dr. Susanne Jaeggi and others developed a modification of Kirchner’s original n-back concept in which two sequences are presented to a subject in different forms, usually one audible and the other visual.  Although Dr. Jaeggi was interested in using this technique to measure working memory, which is a key component of g.  The double sequence is the primary concept behind “dual n-back” brain training.

Meta studies have shown that dual n-back training actually can increase general intelligence.  The amount of increase can be more than 6 points on a standard IQ test, which is pretty amazing.  You can read more here.

Dual n-back brain training focuses on challenging and improving working memory, but it has an overall effect on general intelligence.  You can start a regiment of dual n-back training at brainscale.net.  It’s free, so there are no excuses.  Of course, you could spend a little extra time watching re-runs of Friends, but hopefully, you’ve already figured out that if you can INCREASE your IQ, you can also DECREASE it. Choose wisely.

Dual n-back training is an effective way to improve your intelligence, but it is not the only one.  Lumosity may be effective, along with many of their competitors.  As nearly as I can tell, dual n-back is the most effective.   But it’s important to remember that activities, like solving sudoku puzzles and reading nonfiction, may improve some of the factors that contribute to general intelligence.  Make up your mind to devote at least 15 minutes a day to one of these activities, and your brain will thank you for it.

3.  Pharmaceutical Nootropics – Modafinil

I’ve saved the best for last.  This does NOT mean that you should ignore the preceding two hacks but if you do, you’ll have impressive results with this one by itself.  Nootropics are drugs or other substances (like the supplements I listed in part 1, above) that enhance memory and/or general cognition.  I didn’t use the term for the supplements because I reserve it for pharmaceuticals, even though it can be correctly applied to any substance that can make you smarter.

There are plenty of nootropics on the market, including many claiming to be “natural” concoctions of herbs, roots, berries, vitamins, oils, etc.  This is a burgeoning industry, with more and more tech execs, students, engineers, coders, and others in competitive environments latching on to any potential advantage to sustain or advance their careers.  Caveat emptor applies to these, but with way more caution than you should use when buying a car or just about any other product. There are lots of bad actors promoting snake oil, so learn as much as you can before you try something that may

The one that has my undivided attention because I’ve tested its effectiveness personally is modafinil.  Before you read on, you should understand that I’m biased and that my opinions on modafinil’s effectiveness are dispassionate.  I fell in love with it when I first tried it, so even though I’ve read peer-reviewed literature about it, I’m fighting my own confirmation bias.   In other words, you should definitely do your own research before diving into this nootropic head first.

I’m not alone.  A good friend that started taking modafinil a few months ago tells me that his experience with it has been extraordinarily positive.  He’s an engineer, so his mental acuity is a vital resource, and it’s been significantly sharpened by this nootropic.

Modafinil was originally developed in France by neurophysiologist Michel Jouvet to treat narcolepsy.  It was approved by the USDA in 1998 as a prescription-only treatment for narcolepsy and for shift work sleep disorders.  It’s not clear when it became popular as a nootropic, but it’s become one of the most sought after formulations by nootropic users.  It’s often compared to the fictional smart drug NZT-48 depicted in the movie “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper.  The US Airforce has officially approved modafinil for use by air crews on long or demanding missions including combat.  Athletes have used it in violation of doping rules because it significantly lessens the perceived level of effort required to sustain strenuous training.

The potential downsides of modafinil are relatively minor.  Skin rash and allergy are the only two contra indications listed by Cephalon, the US manufacturer.  Cephalon also advises people with cardiovascular disorders and/or cirrhosis of the importance of consulting a physician before taking modafinil.  FDA did report 6 cases of severe skin rash that may have been related to modafinil use between 1998 and 2007.  You can read more about potential side effects on Wikipedia.

Modafinil has been used safely by countless millions of people world wide.  It IS a prescription medication in most western countries.  Your doctor may prescribe it for you if you have narcolepsy or do shift work.

You may also order it from Duckdose by clicking here.   Duckdose is thoroughly reputable.  They’re shipments originate outside of the US, but shipping usually takes a week or less.

Don’t take my word for the effectiveness of modafinil.  Do your own research, and make your decision accordingly.  For me, modafinil has been life-changing.  Without it, I almost feel as though I’m in a fog.  It’s a familiar feeling, but I didn’t notice it until I took my first dose of modafinil and the fog lifted.

For me, modafinil has been life-changing.  Without it, I almost feel as though I’m in a fog.  It’s a familiar feeling, but I didn’t notice it until I took my first dose of modafinil and the fog lifted.

If you found this article helpful, please don’t hesitate to share it.  And we’d love to read your thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences, so please share them below.