Healthy Mind

‘I’m a Neuroscientist, and These Are 5 Things I Do Every Day To Hack My Brain’

Photo: Getty Images/ fizkes

The internet is chock-full of hacks for literally everything. The best way to cut an avocado? There's a hack for that. Want to make packing for a weekend trip a breeze? There's a genius trick for that too. But when it comes to brain hacks, there's no one who understands how to harness their power better than a neuroscientist. And when your job is to learn how to achieve peak brain performance, you bet you're taking all that knowledge and implementing it into your own life. Such is the case for neuroscientist Tara Swart, MD, PhD, who says she prioritizes a few brain hacks every day to reduce stress, improve her mood, and help her achieve her goals. Read on to learn what the brain hacks are and how to do them. 

1. Practice deep breathing

Upon waking up, the first thing Dr. Swart does is take 10–20 deep breaths. She focuses on releasing any muscle tension in her body, which helps shift stuck energy and opens her up to be more adaptable and responsive during the day to achieve her goals. 

The reason, she explains, is because deep breathing supports neuroplasticity, which is our brain's ability to be flexible and learn and grow throughout our life. "Neuroplasticity gives us the power to change our brain—and, therefore, re-invent our life at any age, any stage, or any mindset," she says. For example, if there's a habit you want to quit or a goal you want to achieve, neuroplasticity is what enables us to make those changes instead of staying stuck in our old patterns or ways of thinking. 

"Mindful breathing can also reduce the size of the amygdala, which promotes stress reduction effects. The amygdala is the part of the brain that detects if you are in danger and activates the fight or flight response," certified breathwork teacher Ana Lilia previously told Well + Good. "When you practice diaphragmatic breathing, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system and go into the 'rest and digest' mode, which helps lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels."

2. Visualize your goals

If you don't already have a vision board, or as Dr. Swart calls them, "action boards," carve out some time to create one. "An action board is a collage, made by hand or digitally, with literal or metaphorical representations of what we desire in life," she says. As part of her daily practice, she uses her action board, which she keeps by her bed, to visualize the images on the board already being true. 

It's more than just visualizing, though. The key is to engage the body and feel what it feels like for those desires to be real with all of your senses. "Looking at these images daily, visualizing them being true, experiencing what that feels like, and giving gratitude for it primes the brain to notice and grasp opportunities in the real world to make these goals come true," Dr. Swart explains. 

The brain does this through selective attention and value tagging. "Selective attention is literally paying attention, or noticing, the things that are relevant to you thriving, not just surviving," Dr. Swart says. "Value tagging is how the brain tags things in order of importance, and the visual triggers from the action board have an impact on this versus just going out into the world with no clear imagery of what you truly want."

3. Spend time in nature

"I walk outdoors in nature, or do barefoot walking as often as I can, both for movement and oxygenation, but also for the incredible brain and body benefits of spending time in nature: improved mood, lower stress, increased attention, less anxiety," Dr. Swart says. Since sunlight also helps improve mood and boost energy and movement, in general, is great for mental and physical health, you can reap many benefits with this daily practice. Bonus points if you also do some tree hugging.  

4. Write a gratitude list

Dr. Swart lists 10 things she's grateful for every day. She advises listing internal resources you're grateful for, such as resilience, creativity, or vulnerability, along with gratitude for the things you want as if they're already true. "This shifts the brain from fear—stress hormone cortisol—to love/trust—oxytocin and dopamine—allowing us to take healthy risks rather than hold back and stay stuck," she explains. If you're new to having a gratitude practice, consider using a gratitude journal with built-in prompts to help get those gratitude juices flowing. 

5. Silence the mind

Another practice Dr. Swart incorporates into her daily routine is creating time and space to quiet her mind, which helps induce creativity in the brain. "I spend some time regularly just 'being' rather than doing and allowing my mind to wander," she says. "Mind wandering shifts the brain from 'control mode,' which is switched on to task focus, toward the 'default mode,' which is to do with idea generation, out of the box problem solving, and creative thinking." 

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