Medical Examiner

One Simple Trick for Being a Better Thinker

Fad brain boosters all miss one key thing: Our brains evolved to work together.

A row of brains holding hands
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Jolygon/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Viktor Morozuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

If you’re a curious human being, the kind that is likely to click on an article about cognition, you’ve seen the fads come and go over the years, many of them related to brain “enhancement.” Eat less fat! Sugar is poison! Eat more fat! Take this supplement—no, wait, take that one! Learn another language! Sudoku! And my all-time favorite: brain games.

In almost each and every case, these interventions don’t keep their promises. If they have any effects, the influence is narrow and specific. If you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you can expect to experience a boost in … how well you do crossword puzzles. More general effects from “brain training” benefiting cognition or memory? If they occur at all, they seem to be ephemeral.

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In observing how these fits and starts have fizzled over the years, I’ve also observed something else: a disconnect, both literal and scientific. Most of these brain hacks target improving your brain, without reference to any other brains in your orbit, as though we all live like the Little Prince, on our own planet. When is the last time you saw claims that a brain game would enhance human connection or a supplement would support perspective-taking? Maybe those values sound a little hippie-ish to you, but I assure you focusing on them when it comes to brain improvement is just practical. The human brain evolved to be highly social—and yet most brain-hacking promises target each of us in isolation.

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Research suggests that honing social cognition and interacting with other brains might be a route toward truly achieving the individual brain benefits that all those other fad things claim to offer. That’s great, because we tend to be largely available to one another, even at a distance of time and space. Indeed, you and I are interacting right now. When you read words online or in a book, listen to podcasts, view a painting, text with friends, or engage on Twitter (at your peril), you are interacting with other brains.

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When I set out to write The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, A User’s Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter, I went into it largely agnostic, perhaps leaning toward skepticism about some things (ahem, supplements). During much of my career as a journalist covering health, one of my driving purposes has been to flatten expectations about extraordinary health claims. I got my start on this in the years I wrote about autism science and the various “autism cures” that get trotted out, ranging from the fairly benign, such as fish oil, to the acutely dangerous, such as bleach and chelation, to the chronically traumatizing, such as applied behavioral analysis.

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In each case, I had a twofold objective. First, I wanted to see real evidence that, whatever this thing was, it would do what was claimed. Second, I wanted to address whether or not what was being “fixed” was even broken. For example, applied behavioral analysis has often focused on stopping autistic people from flapping their hands, which is an expression of emotional overflow. But hand-flapping does not harm anyone, and it’s useful for the person who does it. It’s not “normal” by some standards, but so what? No matter what you might wish to eliminate or improve in yourself, I think it’s healthy to ask yourself why you think something is wrong before you decide that it needs to be fixed. Sometimes, what some people view as “wrong” or in need of repair is just fine for you. It’s important to know that the “fix” you choose truly addresses a problem. In taking on the diverse claims about “fixes” to complex and layered brain functions like memory, mood, or cognition, I wanted to use the same approach.

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For the book, I sifted through hundreds of studies, especially randomized trials and meta-analyses, involving everything from psychedelic microdosing to transcranial direct current stimulation to, yes, brain games. (I mostly focused on remedies that people can access in an everyday way for nondiagnosable issues. I encourage anyone whose brain-related struggles are acutely or chronically disabling to consult with a trained specialist.) Even as someone coming into this with an open mind, what I found surprised me. The three activities with the best support for generally salutary brain effects are physical activity, mindfulness-related practices, and interaction and resonance with other brains. Most of the other stuff? Mixed or just a fizzle.

Are the best options really as basic as all that? I’ve found that the answer is yes. And the social element is crucial. Across six facets of brain function—global cognition, social cognition, stress and anxiety, attention, mood, and creativity—social inputs are one of the only factors that can influence all of them for the better, when judiciously applied.

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Take empathy (but don’t take too much, because that’s unbearably painful). When we’re empathic, we have to detect emotions, take someone else’s perspective, and share that feeling—or resonate—with them. That makes us mind readers. Reading someone’s mind is like solving a mystery based on clues, both those that we consciously register and those we pick up unconsciously. Social interaction, in this way, is a constant act of problem-solving, one of the key practices of healthy global cognition, or general thinking ability.

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Putting your hands over your ears and babbling “lalalalala” is the defiant counterpoint to this openness, to listening and understanding. We are seeing this defiance as a collective behavior in this country as minds close up tight and empathy withers.

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We all have access to the tools to cultivate empathy; in fact, they are mostly free. Empathy expert Roman Krznaric, for example, wrote about the six habits of highly empathic people. His list includes developing curiosity about strangers, trying someone else’s life (such as doing a favorite activity of theirs that’s new to you), listening, opening up, and developing “an ambitious imagination.” These descriptors of how empathic people operate highlight that openness to stories is a key practice for social cognition and engaging in the best of our humanity.

One meta-analysis from 2018 found that people who have just read even a little fiction fare better on tests of social cognition than those who have not. Regular readers of fiction also do better on these tests. For the nonfiction lovers out there, you’ve got some benefit to gain from reading true stories too. What matters most might be how you think about the characters involved, whether they are made-up or real. Stories give us the opportunity to get into the minds of characters, working out what they might be thinking and feeling, how they might react, how we might feel in their situations and those of others. Some researchers have even referred to a brain network implicated in social cognition as the “imagination network,” which is a much finer designation than its more common and boring name, the default mode network.

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Being the storyteller has benefits too. In digging into how storytelling affects stress and anxiety, I found some promising hints of utility, as long as the story is deeply felt between the storyteller and the recipient. A small study that included people who had survived Hurricane Harvey in 2017 tried out storytelling and resonance in alleviating their post-traumatic stress from the horrific event and its aftermath. Relying on an improv approach called Playback Theatre, the study involved actors who listened to the personal stories of these survivors and then played them back by acting them out. After this experience, the participants reported feeling less anxiety, although their depression symptoms remained largely unaffected. Even the brain-boosting techniques that seem to work are not panaceas.

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That’s where tailoring comes in. We can use what works for our specific needs and dispense with the rest—no need to grab at every promising habit touted by an influencer or a CEO or a book author. For nips and tucks or to free up some space, we can pick and choose timing and intensity from the triad of effective restoratives—social interaction, mindfulness, and activity—which also work well as a trio.

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When we engage in physical activity, we experience improvements across many brain functions for detectable physiological reasons, including more oxygen delivery to the brain and support for creating fresh neuronal connections. When we engage in mindfulness-related practices, which include an element of empathy in observing ourselves and the world as it is without judgment, we reap benefits too. As someone for whom mindfulness is not necessarily a natural instinct, I found this evidence compelling enough that I try to practice “being in the moment” several times a day. Research suggests that in doing so, I may sharpen my perspective-taking and emotion identification, which is a learned skill and one I feel the need to hone. And when I use this skill, it usually involves interaction with other people.

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To be clear, I, an introvert, am not advocating that we all become extraverts, which would be a huge leap for people like me. I resonate with Mary Oliver, who wrote in her poem “How I Go to the Woods” of her need to engage in that activity alone, unseen, communing with nature in her own personal way. That practice is a kind of mindfulness. And how she ends the poem resonates for me because it perfectly defines the boundaries of my social limits: “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”

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We all have different thresholds for social experiences and can choose the medium that meets our needs. But whether we sing with others, cook a meal cooperatively, or experience nature with a beloved as leaves crunch beneath our feet, the communal movement, words, and silences can build social connection and understanding. When we share our stories and attend to the telling—even across miles or millennia—we resonate and build empathy too. The good news, perhaps the best news, is that for most of us, this “one weird trick” to tailor our brains lies within reach of a good book, a podcast, a painting, a song, or, simply, one another.