What Has Neuroscience Done for You Lately? Try These Brain Hacks

Tips and Techniques for Optimizing Brain Function

By Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., The College of William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever had the frustrating experience of trying to talk to someone in a noisy bar? Or watched a YouTube video that you just can’t stop replaying in your memory? Neuroscience to the rescue! We spoke with Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary, about brain hacks backed by neuroscience.

Group of young people in bar setting
During conversations with a lot of background noise, if you speak into someone’s right ear, they will better understand and respond to what you’re saying. Photo by Corepics VOF / Shutterstock

A Brain Hack for Bar Conversations

The world of neuroscience is vast, and research has revealed extraordinary, unexpected results that belie more often than not the flaws in “common sense” and shed light on folklore. Out of this knowledge has emerged brain hacks that can aid you in all sorts of situations.

Suppose you want someone to understand and respond to what you’re saying and you’re in a noisy restaurant or a loud nightclub. Pro tip: Talk into their right ear. 

We have physical evidence that there are stronger connections between the right ear and the left side of the brain, and it’s the left side of the brain where language processing takes place for most people. In a series of studies, when researchers asked people for favors in a noisy disco, they received a lot more “yes” responses if they talked into the right ear than the left ear.

Trauma Prevention and Brain Productivity

Another brain hack can help you to overcome unsettling emotions. Suppose you saw something unpleasant very recently—something you’d prefer to forget. It could be anything

To forget the unpleasant emotions tied to something that you saw, you could do an all-engrossing activity like playing video games for a while. This works because the incoming memory knocks the first memory out of short-term thought processes. It takes about 24 to 48 hours for the full consolidation of experiences to go into permanent, long-term memory. 

Research has shown, if you involve your brain in an activity with goals that incur immediate rewards, you can also eliminate the consolidation of experiences into long-term memory. After watching a traumatic film, research participants who played a video game called Tetris experienced fewer intrusive memories during the subsequent week as compared to participants who did not play the game after watching the film. 

And if you’ve just seen something wonderful—something you’d love to remember? Avoid playing Tetris.

Finally, try this brain hack to accomplish big goals and combat procrastination.

Pick the hardest thing on your to-do list and do that first. Human willpower and creativity, mediated by activity in your prefrontal cortex, are limited resources. 

The effort you expend starting with easier tasks, however nice it might feel, will reduce the probability that you’ll have enough gas left in the brain tank to tackle larger challenges later. The brain relies on glucose and oxygen to maintain its activity; as you use these up, the regions of your brain involved in self-control function less optimally.

Rethinking the 10 Percent Myth

The human brain is a network of about 100 billion interconnected neurons. The connections between those neurons—the synapses of the brain—number in the trillions. 

Everything you’ve ever seen, heard, thought, or done has emerged from the intricate patterns of chemical and electrical activity produced by this amazing organ. There’s a commonly repeated myth that we only use about 10 percent of our brains. 

This 10 percent claim is certainly false. A variety of techniques have been developed that are able to sense and record the patterns of activity in a living, working brain. 

Those studies demonstrate that even for basic, everyday tasks, almost the entire brain is active.

While it’s clear that we use far more than 10 percent of our brain, there’s some truth to the notion that we only understand about 10 percent of what’s going on in the brain. Cognitive neuroscience has learned a great deal about how the brain functions, but the brain remains one of the great mysteries in all of science. 

The past few decades have seen an explosion in our understanding of the brain and how it mediates human behavior. Technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, have made it possible to watch the patterns of activation associated with real-time thinking. We have the tools now to look under the hood while the brain is running, without opening the skull to look inside.

Keep these brain hack concepts in your toolkit for dealing with situations that arise in your busy life. They are just the tip of the iceberg of understanding how the brain works. 

The brain is plastic from birth until death, which means learning never stops. The better you understand your own brain, the better you’ll be able to navigate the complex landscape of your everyday world. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 104 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.