Feed your brain & make sure it gets a nap

Diane Strandberg

The Tri-City News, August 28, 2008

Guess what? We're not hard-wired to study textbooks and pages of barely legible class notes for long periods of time. And memorizing math facts, French verbs and the definition of osmosis is, well, like doing the splits on a balance beam.

It's unnatural.

It's hard.

And you wouldn't do it unless you had a reason.

The brain has a more urgent task at hand - staying alive.

"That's the brain's number one job," says popular speaker and study skills expert Terry Small (www.terrysmall.com).

To emphasize his point, Small turned towards the double doors in the Montgomery Learning Centre gym and asked the families attending his study skills class last week what they would do if the doors suddenly burst open. "You'd all turn to look to see if it was a sabre tooth tiger or the Domino pizza guy - an opportunity or a threat."

It's not that the brain is a slacker focused on nothing but junk food and excitement; rather, the brain is a powerful tool that is, sadly, mostly underemployed.

Think of an Einstein stuck in Homer Simpson's body, a potential genius trapped inside a beer-guzzling, doughnut-stuffing under-achiever.

It takes work to get your brain functioning at its highest level, and if Small's techniques are any example, you could say your brain is as temperamental as a three-year-old and needs to be pandered to, fed and encouraged for it to hum along with any sort of efficiency.

For example, the human brain is easily distracted. Every 3.5 seconds or so, our attention is drawn away from the task at hand. We also need a brain break every 11 to 20 minutes depending on our age.

(Small's tip: To determine how long you should go between brain breaks, take your age and add two, up until the age of 18. The time between breaks doesn't change with adulthood).

As a sensitive yet demanding machine, your brain also needs much TLC as a high-performance car. You can tune it up with exercise. Small recommends short brain breaks and a cross-lateral movement where you touch the opposite foot, elbow, knee, etc. a couple of times to stimulate both sides of the brain.

Sleep is important, too, especially for teens. Without it, you'll forget everything you learned during last night's cram session.

Don't skip breakfast, either, as it's the brain's big meal and, if you can, forget the Snickers bar at snack time and crunch on five walnuts instead - apparently, they are the perfect brain snack.

The brain also likes visual cues such as colour, so colour-code those notes.

And music will get brain dancing on the alpha waves it produces. (Sorry metal-heads, it has to be Baroque, and only mildly stimulating classics with 50 to 70 beats per minute will work.)

That was some of the fun stuff.

Small entertained his audience with jokes, magic tricks and quirky research findings during the two-hour study skills workshop. But there were some basic study tips, too.


Here are a few. For the rest, check out one of his workshops, which are available periodically through Coquitlam Continuing Education:

  • Set a goal: Write your desired grade, percentage or score and post it around your house, your locker and in your binder so you see it often. Your brain needs a reason to function and responds well to positive reinforcement.
  • Write it down: Note-takers get 50% higher marks than those who try to remember what was said. Your brain learns best when it's firing on all three tracks; audio, visual, kinetic - and writing uses all three.
  • Think like a teacher: Turn classroom notes into a quiz for easy studying. Divide a page, keep the left hand page blank and write notes on the right hand page. Listen for cues such as "this is important" and mark that material with coloured ink. Go back and write potential questions to the notes on the left-hand page and you have a practice test. Coloured inks and thinking about questions will keep your brain alert and focused.
  • Study like a pro: Use recipe cards - answers on one side, questions on the other - to quiz yourself. Pat yourself on the back for every one you get right since your brain likes the pressure of competition and thrives on rewards.

Studying isn't about cramming information into your head, says a studying expert, who says a student has to understand how his or her brain works to help it perform optimally.

For more tips, seminar dates and other information go to www.terrysmall.com.