Your brain is elastic. If you enrich your environment, you improve your ability to learn. If you try to learn in a less than ideal environment, the brain’s capacity to learn diminishes.
Researchers have identified five factors, in particular, that make the difference. If you pay attention to these, you will increase your ability to learn, have a better academic experience, earn higher grades, and set yourself up for a happier, more fulfilled life in the future.
- Challenge: You encounter new material every day in class. As long as you take your courses seriously and do the work, that’s pretty much taken care of.
- Newness: Many students fall into a rut quickly upon arriving on campus – they spend time with the same people, engage in the same activities, and go to the same places time and again. If you notice that you are living like that, break out of it. Get to know some new people, engage in an unfamiliar activity, or go somewhere in the university or the college town you haven’t been yet. Check out a museum and ponder a sculpture. Read ten pages in a novel you have always wanted to check out. Listen to some different music. Write down your thoughts about life for 30 minutes. Experience something new regularly and challenge yourself continuously.
- Nutrition: When you feed yourself, you feed your brain. It’s tempting to give in to convenience and comfort of pizza, hamburgers, and fries when you are pressed for time. But virtually every college campus has salad bars in their dining halls and healthy and inexpensive eating options in the neighborhood. Maybe it’s time to experiment with a vegan, vegetarian, Whole30, or Paleo regimen. Whatever you choose, you need to be mindful of what you put into your body. It might help to write down what you eat every day for a week. The better quality of food you eat, the better off your brain will be.
- Movement: You will not be surprised that exercise finds itself among these five factors. It means more than running to class. If you are not a college athlete, you will have to be purposeful about exercise, even if it’s just 30 minutes of stretching and walking briskly through campus every day.
- Love and other positive emotions: Many experiments have proven that positive emotions have a strengthening effect on not only our brains but also on our immune system and other bodily systems. If you haven’t found friends on your campus yet, be sure to stay in touch with high school friends and your family on a regular basis so that you can feel loved and remember how much you love them.
Of course, you can have too much of a good thing, including environmental enrichment. Overstimulation will lead to exhaustion. Find time for solitude, introspection, and, most importantly, sleep, to balance the enhancements you make to your environment.
This post is based on research done in part by Marian Cleeves Diamond, Enriching Heredity: The Impact of the Environment on the Anatomy of the Brain, Free Press, 1988. See the trailer for the film about her, My Love Affair With the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond.