If someone asked you to describe the defining characteristics of “human being”, you would most likely talk about how we can speak, walk upright, have opposable thumbs, etc…
All of that stuff is great. But you know what the most defining characteristic is?
The ability to choose.
What is the Prefrontal Cortex?
We are the only animal on the planet that possesses a rational, conscious mind. This has been responsible for the growth of our civilization over the ages.
The prefrontal cortex is the seat of this rationality and without it, we would only act on instinct.
It’s called the “executive portion” of the brain. Our prefrontal cortex is responsible for logic, reason, willpower, creativity, decision-making problem solving, and best of all – goal setting.
If your prefrontal cortex is weak, your ability to do all of these will be severely diminished.
But…due to the amazing ability of the brain to change itself (neuroplasticity), you can strengthen this area of the brain with repeated practice.
Here’s 7 ways you can increase the activity in this area of the brain, making it stronger over time
1. Resist Instant Gratification
We live in a world where you can easily meet any desire with no money down and no time spent.
This sounds good on the surface, but the reality tells a different story.
Instant gratification rewires the brain to seek rewards immediately, with little or no time in between the initial action performed and the feedback. This decreases your level of patience over time.
Unfortunately, in real life – it doesn’t work that way. Most of the time, you’re not going to get immediate feedback. By the time you see the results, the action was already done. For example, if you go to college for a four year degree – it takes four years for you to see the result of an action (signing up for college) that you did in the past.
The biggest sources of instant gratification today is social media. Likes, retweets, messages, all of these are forms of “feedback”. This means you should decrease your time on social media as much as possible.
If you want some proof of this, check out this video on how social media can change your brain.
2. Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone
In order to achieve big things, you need willpower. Willpower originates from the prefrontal cortex. Willpower is like a muscle. You only have a certain amount of it you can use per day. But again, due to the changeable nature of the brain – you can increase your willpower.
The best way to do that is to do something that’s just a bit outside your comfort zone. This could be something like not hitting the “snooze” button when the alarm hits 6:00, going for an extra rep in the gym, or even engaging a stranger while waiting in line at Starbucks.
All of these force you to make decisions in the moment, sometimes in the space of a second. When you do something that you’re not accustomed to, your brain makes new neural connections is that you can be better equipped for it the next time around.
This is also a key part of what is called “deliberate practice“, a large part of what it means to get better at any skill.
3. Learn New Material
Learning engages the brain. Like exercising willpower to go beyond the comfort zone, learning or doing anything new makes new neural connections in this area of the brain.
Reading (especially reading unfamiliar material) is a great way to exercise your brain and prefrontal cortex.
When you read, your brain is trying to piece together the information in the book into a coherent whole to make sense of the parts that you read.
4. Blue Sky Thinking
Exercising the ability to think of the “best case scenario” is a prime function of the prefrontal cortex. It takes willpower and conscious thought of what could go right rather than what could go wrong
Pessimism is the path of least resistance. It takes very little effort to think about why your life sucks, why people suck, and why the world sucks.
Besides, optimism is a much better prescription for health, especially when you consider that optimists live longer on average than pessimists.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is key in revitalizing your body’s health. But most people are under-slept.
The average amount of sleep has decreased over the years and society as a whole is suffering for it.
Lack of sleep decreases your decision making big time and makes it harder to concentrate and focus, especially on what matters.
If you want better sleep, here’s five tips:
- Go to sleep at a specific time
- Keep electronics away from you when you’re trying to go to bed
- Establish a pre-bedtime ritual
- Write in a journal before bed
- Sleep in a dimly lit room
When people hear the word “meditation”, they tend to conjure up pictures of people sitting cross-legged on the ground chanting. Meditation can definitely be that but that’s not all it is.
Meditation is simply focusing intently on a specific theme, idea, or motif.
This can be done in a variety of ways but the intention is to focus the mind and bring awareness to a laser sharp point, shutting out all other considerations.
Meditation is a great way to strengthen the prefrontal cortex because it trains you to concentrate and be present in the moment.
7. Clean Up Your Diet
Certain foods make it harder for you to think in a logical and coherent manner due to the “brain fog” they give you.
Things that are high in salt, sugar, or artificial additives tend to do this more often than not.
If your diet consists of Big Macs, fried chicken, and Oreos, you’d be better off getting as many vegetables, fruits, and good proteins in your diet as possible. These foods contain many nutrients that your brain can utilize as energy, especially when you’re doing a lot of heavy thinking.
Your brain is the most valuable organ in your body. Without a functioning brain, you’d be a vegetable. Give it the care it deserves by challenging it regularly and keeping it away from things that can weaken it. Remember, you’ve only got one. When you follow these tips, you can go farther than you ever imagined because your brain has a lot of energy at it’s disposal.
When you have a lot of energy, the world is your oyster.
Sim Campbell has made it his mission to examine what it means to live an expansive and fulfilling life in the modern world as a young emerging man. He talks about this on Unstoppable Rise, a site dedicated to relentless personal development with a strong philosophical slant.