Everyone wants to be smart and intelligent. The abundance of “nootropics”, i.e. pills and powders which are promising you to enhance your cognition, attests to this reality. But there is another reason why they are so abundant. It`s because those things are so convenient. It´s always the same. In finance it´s the guru who says his strategy will make you rich in a month, in fitness it´s the trainer who tells you his program makes you sixpack-lean in 4 weeks and in the supplement industry it´s the secret sauce-bcaa-glutamine drink that quadriples your testosterone. In every field there are those convenient (pseudo) shortcuts. But as you can already tell from my ironic tone – those quick shortcuts are bullshit and cost a lot of money. Think rationally, if there were a pill which transforms you into Einstein, don´t you think everyone would already use it? It is better to say goodbye to the shiny world of promises and enter the world of science. It turns out, there are things which are cheap, accessible, safe and proven to bolster your brainpower. Intrigued? Let´s dive into those opportunities….

Why meditation sharpens your mind into a razor blade

To show you what the benefits of the technique look like in real life, I will introduce John and Lisa. John is a fictional student and Lisa a fictional knowledge worker. Both are meditating for 15 minutes a day. Let´s walk through a normal day for both. In the morning John has a biochemistry class. In comparison to his peers, John retains much more of the lecture because his visual attention increased through meditation[1] and he can sustain his attention longer.[2] [3]  That means he can concentrate longer until his mind starts wandering and if it does, he can refocus faster on the lecture. For Lisa this means that she can focus for longer on the presentation she is preparing and thus finishes quicker as her colleges. But there is another reason why she´s more productive. Her coworkers get distracted a lot more by the open office they´re working in. In contrast, Lisa has an improved conflict resolution through meditation[4]. Hence, she now can also suppress irrelevant information better.[5] Instead of getting distracted through the noise in the bureau, Lisa has an easier time to concentrate on her work. And what does that mean for our imaginary student John? When doing his reading assignments, he is able to filter out the important information from the unimportant ones. The most striking advantage of our two practitioners however, is their (by 30 percent) increased working memory capacity. To quote Chris Bailey, “There is […] one practice that has been proven in study after study to increase Working Memory Capacity – Meditation.”[6]. A higher WM capacity is the equivalent to a better processor of a computer. It allows you to work with more complex thoughts and to craft sophisticated ideas. Moreover, the benefits of meditation are not a magical phenomenon which can´t be rationally explained. For instance, meditation increases the activity of regions in the brain which are associated with redirecting your attention and the selection of relevant information[7]. Think of it like a muscle. If you want to grow your biceps, you have to make sure that the exercise you are doing, is targeting the biceps. And like the muscle you are training in your workout, the brain regions you are training during meditation also grow. I.e. the brain region called Cortex, is thicker in meditators than in non-meditators.[8]

How to get started with meditation

Meditation is simple. Sit down and choose a comfortable posture where your spin is in an upright position. Than close your eyes and simply focus on your breath. The next thing that is eventually going to happen, is that your mind will start to wander. Now comes the critical step. The moment you notice that you don´t focus on your breath anymore, redirect your attention toward your breathing. This redirecting is exercise for your attention muscle. Every time you refocus, your attention gets stronger. You see, the mechanism behind meditation is not spiritual or religious. You can focus on something like a candle or a small dot on a white sheet of paper as well. As long as you redirect your attention to the object of focus, anything works. A rule of thumb, the smaller and more boring the thing you are concentrating on (e.g. your breath), the more often your mind is going to wander. Therefore, the bigger and more interesting your object of focus is (e.g. a candle flame), the more you can sustain focus. So, match your competence to the difficulty of the practice.

Tyrosin, a supplement for mental endurance?

As I mentioned in the introduction, I don´t approve of supplements which promise to make you smart. Those so called nootropics are researched (if they are researched at all) very poorly. However, that doesn´t count for Tyrosin. Don´t get me wrong here, this supplement won´t raise your IQ by 80 points or so. It´s effect is reliable but modest and only because it´s so cheap and convenient I write about it. (The same applies for caffeine, which I devoted a separate article to.) But let´s see what we can get out of Tyrosin. For one it can counteract the cognitive impairment induced by sleep deprivation. Therefore, if you got less than 7,5 hours of sleep this night (5 full sleep cycles), you can mitigate the consequences of sleep loss on your brain. The main benefit however, occurs in mentally challenging situations. To give you some context, imagine yourself in a 4 hour math test or in the final stages of your project at work. Under those circumstances you are operating at your best for a very long time without a break. What´s going to happen is that your brain burns tons of resources to meet this challenge. Finally, there are no recourses left and the activity of certain brain regions decrease. Here is where Tyrosin enters the game. Tyrosin is the precursor of Dopamin, which is a resource needed to keep your brain operating. Hence, if you have high levels of Tyrosin, you won´t run out of Dopamin. When we return to our previous example of the 4 hour math test, we can expect what´s going to happen when we consume Tyrosin before. Instead of a decline in your mental performance 2 hours into the test, it´s likely that you´re able to keep up your concentration. Fortunately, this is exactly what science tells us. Especially a decrease in cognitive control functions, cognitive flexibility, response inhibition and working memory updating can be prevented through Tyrosin.[9] [10] Put simply, you can maintain a high level of concentration. But keep in mind that the supplement only works during extreme mentally challenging situations. It´s only useful to take it if you think “this task is going to be demanding, I really don´t want to do this.”

How to use Tyrosin?

First you need to buy the supplement. It´s just an amino acid, but always, always ensure that the supplements you´re taking are of good quality. If you don´t care, you are an idiot, end of the discussion. Here are some criteria a supplement (the company) should meet before you buy it: Is there a third party laboratory analysis? Is there a certification of an unrelated organization, like good manufacturing standard (GMS), the NSF international (NFS) or the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) certificate? And the no brainer, is the product tremendously cheaper than concurrence products? That was the difficult part, finding a suitable producer. In contrast, taking Tyrosin is pretty straightforward. One and a half hours before you´ll need it, consume 1 gram of the powder. Tyrosin levels peak one to two hours after injection and can stay elevated for up to 8 hours.

How exercise makes you smarter (faster) and keeps you smart

Great things require great effort. As previously discussed, you shouldn´t believe in shortcuts and quick fixes. Like meditation, sport is not something that´s done easily. But don´t worry, in the following section you´ll learn how to trick yourself into working out, if you haven´t already got a sport habit in place. However, why should you even exercise if your quest is becoming smarter? Because when we look at children, we see the more exercise they are doing, the higher their IQ, math skills, memory and the more mature they are.[11] And already moderate activity (like taking a brisk walk) was enough to keep mental performance up for longer.[12] Thus, exercise has two main benefits. For one the short-term benefit. If you do sport, you can concentrate longer before your brainpower declines in the hours following exercising. Secondly the long-term benefit. When working out regularly, your overall brainpower increases, regardless of having done sport on that given day. For example, after exercising for a few weeks, researchers found an increase in cognitive control, math skills and executive functioning in study participants.[13] [14] What this means is, you are better at suppressing automatic behavior like bad habits, stepping back in your thoughts and create a plan for what you should be doing. In general, you become better in tasks performed on a conscious level. For instance, learning something new or planning. And well, you´ll be better at math. Moreover, in the elderly, exercise has the exact same effect.[15] [16] This brings us to the conclusion that being active levels up your cognitive performance and allows you to maintain it during aging.

How you can trick yourself into exercising

 We all know, we should do more sport, visit our families more often and eat healthier. The hard part however, is to put this knowledge into practice. So how do you start an exercising regularly? Here are four laws of habit formation from James Clears excellent book “Atomic Habits”. Notice that the strategies which follow the laws are just suggestions. Create custom versions of them, tailored to your own life.

1.Make it obvious and install a cue. Pack your gym bag the day before you want to do sport and put it where you can see it when the time for your workout comes. Otherwise use post it´s and write “go exercising” where it´s obvious at the right time.

2.Make it attractive and induce a craving to do sport. What I like to do is listening to a certain song or looking at a picture of my personal best form to start myself thinking “I want to look like that again, now!”. Moreover, you also make it obvious when listening to the same song or music genre, because it also acts as a cue to go training. Another option is to provoke a desire which is unrelated to training. For instance, the craving for the massage you´re having after each workout.

3. Make the response to your craving easy. Once you are a little bit motivated, it should be the easiest thing in the world to follow your intentions. Packing your gym bag is one such thing but you can do more. Starting small for example is another way to battle procrastination. So, instead of scheduling two hours of exercising, schedule 20 minutes at the beginning or even 5 minutes. Sounds ridiculous? Yes absolutely, but that´s exactly the point. Indeed, it would be ridiculous if you procrastinate doing 5 minutes of exercising. It´s so ridiculous that you would increase the time the next week to 20 minutes and then the week after to 30 minutes…. I think you understand the point I´m trying to make here.

4.Make it satisfying by immediately rewarding yourself afterwards. As you may have noticed, since you’re a human being, nature has programmed us to prioritize immediate rewards (food, drugs, buying stuff) over long term ones (healthy bodys, financial independence). Therefore it´s crucial to make your exercise habit something pleasurable in the moment. Ending with a massage is one such option, which also makes working out more attractive in the first place. Another recommendation is habit journaling. It´s just tracking your behavior until it happens automatically.

Now get a calendar, mark each day you trained or meditated with an X and don´t break the streak.

[1] Hodgins and Adair (2010). Attentional processes and meditaiton. Consciousness and Cognition.

[2] Carter et al. (2005). Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks. Current Biology.

[3]  Brefczynski-Lewis et al. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[4] Tang et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[5] Colzato et al. (2016). A single bout of meditation
biases cognitive control but not attentional focusing: Evidence from the global-local task.
Consciousness and Cognition.

[6] Chris Bailey (2018). Hyperfocus- How to be more productive in a world of distraction.

[7] Hasenkamp et al. (2012). Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states.

[8] Cromie (2006). Meditation Found to Increase Brain Size. Harvard News Office.

[9] Colzato et al.(2014). Eating to stop: Tyrosine supplementation enhances inhibitory control but not response execution. Neuropsychologia.

[10] Steenbergen et al.(2015). Tyrosine promotes cognitive flexibility: Evidence from proactive vs. reactive control during task switching performance. Neuropsychologia.

[11] Sibley, B. A., & Etnier, J. L. (2003). The relationship between physical activity and cognition in
children: A meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science.

[12] Leckie et al. (2014). BDNF mediates improvements in executive function following a 1-year
exercise intervention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

[13] Hillman et al. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience.

[14] Davis et al. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation
in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology.

[15] Hillman et al. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience.

[16] Davis et al. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation
in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology.

Photo by Ayooj-Rangaraj from Unsplash

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