fun with science

Why a Single Run Makes You Smarter

And other low-impact ways to enhance your brain.

Denny Watkins

baona/Getty Images

If only getting smarter worked the way it does for the robots on Westworld—a few taps on a tablet, and boom, instant IQ points. Until then, we still have to hack our brains using more old-fashioned tactics. And while the results are less dramatic—you won't exactly be speaking Mandarin overnight—they're still pretty useful. New research is shedding light on how we forge new memories, think creatively, and process information. As a result, we've learned that if you try a few of these low-impact habits, you could improve your focus, think more clearly, and have an easier time remembering where you stashed your erotica last time your parents came over.  

Go for a Run (Just One)
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Regular cardio is good for you. Okay, no shit—but interestingly, even a one-time jog can help you remember things that you just learned. In a recent Austrian study, researchers had students either go running for an hour or play an hour of the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike. It may seem obvious that exercise would be healthier, but the scientists were actually comparing the physiological stress of running to the psychological stress of getting lit up by 10-year-olds online. Both types of stress potentially increase levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with memory formation. In this case, however, only running produced enough of the hormones to help retain new information. (The researchers also believe that the heightened awareness when you play video games makes your brain focus primarily on winning the game, and not on remembering something unrelated to sniping pixelated bad guys.)

Be More Open-Minded
A type of meditation called "open monitoring" is best for improving your ability to drum up new ideas, according to a study in the NetherlandsOpen monitoring is where you let yourself experience the thoughts and feelings that pass through your head, as opposed to focusing on something specific. That means you're not using meditation time to think about the vacation you have coming up—you're just noticing thoughts and then letting them go. When psychologists had regular meditators participate in three sessions of open monitoring spaced ten days apart, they performed vastly better on a standard creativity test asking them to invent new uses for household items like a pen or a brick. The researchers believe this style of meditation trains your brain to hold competing thoughts at the same time, allowing you to make new connections—and, with luck, inspire fresher ideas. 

It may seem more convenient to tap meeting notes directly into your laptop, but you'll have a better understanding of the material if you take notes on paper, according to a Princeton University study. When psychologists had 79 students watch a series of TED talks, the typers' notes managed to capture the lecture nearly verbatim, but people who wrote out their notes longhand performed better on tests evaluating whether they gained a deeper understanding of the material. One explanation is that because you can't get every word down while you write on paper, your brain has to decide what's most important in real time. To help the process along, you can also doodle: A British study found that when people were encouraged to scribble on paper while listening to a tedious voice mail message, they correctly remembered 29 percent more information than people who never picked up a pen. 

Try a Walking Meeting
When you're stuck on a problem, stand up from your desk and go for a walk. A Stanford University study on 176 people found that 81 percent of them improved their scores on a test of creativity if they took it while walking on a treadmill. In one part of the study, scores jumped an average of 60 percent. The researchers also found that walkers were still more creative for a brief period after they sat back down again. That means it's not just the physical activity that helps—nor is it the distraction of seeing a different view than your cubicle, since the walkers faced a blank wall on the treadmill. Instead, the scientists believe that walking helps activate old memories (they're not sure exactly how), which your brain uses for inspiration. 

Drink Coffee
In addition to keeping you upright in the morning, caffeine can help you form new memories. In one experiment, researchers at Johns Hopkins University determined that people who took a caffeine supplement before learning new information performed better on a memory test the next day than people who took a placebo. The sweet spot of caffeine seems to be in the zone of 200 to 300 milligrams—about the amount in a 16-ounce coffee or a 12-ounce energy drink. Other studies have found that smaller amounts of caffeine don't produce a measurable effect.