It's brain awareness week, so let's take a moment to look at some current beliefs and in the process debunk some of those brain myths both old and new.
1. Brain fitness is something you only really need to start thinking about from late middle age onwards.
False: brain fitness is essential at all ages. It covers the lifespan from childhood to old age. Having a brain that is optimised for best performance is best achieved from an early age, but it is NEVER too late to start either.
2. Once the scientists have worked out the cause of Alzheimer's and an effective treatment, we will all be able to rest easy, because the solution will be as simple as taking a pill.
False: Maintaining our cognition is far more than looking for a way to prevent Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. It is our lifestyle that plays the biggest role in determining our mood, our mindset, and our capacity to embrace new learning, new skills and change. It also plays an important role in determining how or whether we express our genetic predispositions.
3. Life is busy. We all know what it's like to feel as if we have too much to do and too little time to do it - it's just normal to feel tired, stressed and sometimes overwhelmed.
False: Yes, the pace of life has quickened as has the pace of change, but it is never O.K. to accept that just because this is what you have become used to, that it is actually a helpful way to be living and thinking. We have a marvellous and adaptable brain that allows us to choose how to upgrade performance. It starts with awareness, plus the belief that you can achieve improvement and then to experience the reward of more energy, increased mental vitality and better results from greater efficiency and productivity.
4. Because time is precious, we can train our brain to manage with less sleep.
False: Our brains still require the same amount of good quality, uninterrupted sleep i.e. 7-8 hours each night in order to function at our best. Yes, there is a lot of individual variability but for the majority of us, if we choose to deprive our brains of the sleep, we pay the cognitive cost of poorer mental performance, increased risk of mental disorder (anxiety and depression) and increased chronic health problems including obesity, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative problems.
5. We can get a lot more done, by multitasking.
False: Multitasking is essentially multifailing when it comes to focussed attention. Our brain simply wasn't designed for it. Trying to multitask leads to cognitive exhaustion, increased errors and we take longer to get everything done. Multitasking is for the birds.
6. To get ahead in our career/work/life we have to push ourselves harder, for longer, even if that means we spend more hours at work/college/studying.
False: Our brain was not designed for long periods of focussed attention. Our maximal performance will be achieved by working in shorter chunks with adequate "breathing" space for our brain. When we are learning new material, a new skill or looking to resolve a challenging problem, the worst thing we can do it to keep thinking about it for too long. Scheduling in regular brain breaks of 10-15 minutes every hour to 90 minutes of work will boost productivity, innovation and creativity and simultaneously reduce errors.
So what is the biggest message for brain awareness week?
That it pays to give your brain the attention it deserves - because no one, especially your brain, likes to be taken for granted.