10 ways to hack your brain

Trick your brain into doing what you want it to do.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

The mind is willing but the flesh is weak — or so the saying goes. But what if the mind isn’t so willing? That’s when you might need to resort to some clever ruses and practical tips to help get your brain back on the right track.

-- By Sally Wadyka for MSN Healthy Living
1 of 12 A brain (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

Feel less hungry

Losing weight is hard work. And when you feel too hungry to skip that midday snack or second helping, dropping pounds can be next to impossible. There’s some research to suggest that your sense of smell may help quell your appetite. That’s the idea between the wildly popular diet aid Sensa (you shake the powder on food to enhance the food’s smell and supposedly signal the release of hormones that suppress appetite). Other tricks include sniffing peppermint or grapefruit oils.

Dr. Richard L. Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, told the New York Times: “There’s been a theory around for a number of years that if you saturate your sensory system that you’ll not be as hungry. There needs to be more research done.”

2 of 12 Person looking in the fridge (Henrik Weis/Getty Images)

Get more focused

Our multitasking natures have served us well. We can successfully navigate several computer screens at once or juggle emails, phone calls and a crying child simultaneously. But the problem with all that juggling is that we have lost our ability to really focus on one thing at a time. “Taking breaks from our gadgets throughout the day allows us to be more mindful of our multitasking  — and allows us to focus on one task,” says Gary Small, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. “It cuts back on anxiety about having to respond immediately to every ping and buzz.” Plus, research has shown that multitasking actually increases errors and decreases efficiency.

3 of 12 A woman multitasking (Henrik Weis/Getty Images)

Have more energy

When that afternoon energy slump hits, a double latte isn’t the only answer. A better way to trick your brain into feeling wide awake is to head outside for a walk around the block. Research has shown that just 10 to 15 minutes of moderate exercise (such as a brisk walk) is enough to increase your heart rate, which pumps more blood throughout the body, bringing more energy-infusing oxygen up to the brain. “Plus, the deep breathing gets plenty of oxygen to the brain, which is essential for optimal mental function,” Small says.

4 of 12 A couple walking (Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Get motivated to exercise

The most difficult part of a workout is often just lacing up your sneakers and getting started. Get your brain on board by telling yourself that you can quit after just 15 minutes if you want. Sports psychologists love to recommend this ruse because, chances are, once you’ve gotten 15 minutes into your run, time on the spin bike or aerobics routine, you’ll be motivated to go the distance. And worst-case scenario? You still talked yourself into doing 15 minutes of exercise, which is better than nothing.

5 of 12 People at a cycling class (Commercial Eye/Getty Images)

Boost name recall

You meet someone at a party, they introduce themselves to you, but two sentences into your conversation, you’ve already forgotten their name. Sound familiar? The key to getting your brain to hold on to new names is simple: Give it more practice. Repeat the name out loud when you’re introduced (“Nice to meet you, Mary”) and then silently to yourself during the conversation. When you move on to mingle elsewhere, repeat it out loud one more time to help cement it into your memory. “Repetition makes you pay better attention and helps rehearse the information,” says Cynthia Green, Ph.D, president of Memory Arts LLC. “It’s just like in school when you had to write a word out 25 times while you were learning to spell.”

6 of 12 A person wearing a nametag (Ciaran Griffin/Getty Images)

Clear your mind

Sometimes, the brain’s biggest issue is its inability to just relax. When your thoughts are racing, there are some tricks to help talk your brain into chilling out. “A simple breathing exercise tends to slow us down,” Small explains. “Focus on your diaphragm moving slowly, your chest expanding and contracting as your lungs inflate and deflate.” Your brain will still try to interrupt your serenity with random thoughts, but simply let them go and keep returning your focus to your breathing until your mind starts to feel more still.

7 of 12 A woman meditating (Ilya Terentyev/Getty Images)

Remember where you left your keys

The trick to never losing your keys again is to figure out a way to never forget where you left them. By creating what Small calls “memory places” for all those things — keys, cellphone, wallet — that you routinely waste time searching for, you alleviate the need for your brain to store more information. He suggests designating a special place where those things always land (a hook by the door, a basket on the hallway table), so that your brain won’t ever have to think about them again.

8 of 12 A person unlocking a car (PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura/Getty Images)

Ace a test

When you’re cramming for an exam, the best way to get your brain to hold onto what you’re learning is to sleep on it. “Knitting together of memories happens while you sleep,” says Dr. Gary Richardson, former staff physician at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.  A recent study at the University of Chicago found that sleep plays an important role in helping to consolidate new memories and helping your brain hold onto them. So rather than trying to stay up all night studying, you’re much better off leaving your desk and heading to bed in time to log a good eight hours in the sack.

9 of 12 A woman sitting in a class (Chris Ryan/Getty Images)

Get in the mood for sex

There’s a good reason you’re probably always in the mood when a relationship is new and exciting (and why relationship experts always recommend trying to spice things up when you’re in a long-term commitment). It’s because new experiences cause the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that affects the pleasure center in your brain, so when you and your partner try something new and exciting together (skydiving, anyone?) you’ll be more likely to be up for other adventures together, too.

10 of 12 A couple in bed (Getty Images)