Your brain on finals

Feeling overwhelmed by work? Need a pick-me-up? Don’t drink one of those disgusting 5- Hour Energy drinks, binge-eat Twinkies, or cry out in sorrow. Instead, calmly read this interview with Fiery Cushman — one Brown’s fantastic professors of Psychology — and learn about what you can do/are doing for your noggin in the coming weeks.Sarah Weiss: Does what I eat have an affect on my brain’s ability to study?

Professor Fiery Cushman: Actually it does.  The brain consumes a large proportion of the body’s energy, and several studies indicate that our investment in careful, effortful thought depends in part on the amount of available sugar in our blood.  When your blood is full of energy you work harder and longer on difficult problems, and are also better at exerting willpower and control over your behavior.But this doesn’t mean that your studying should be fueled by a steady stream of soda and twinkies.  That will buy you a short-term jump in blood sugar, but a long-term crash.  A smarter strategy is to fuel yourself for studying the way you would for a hike: using snacks like trail mix that provide a steady stream of fuel over a long period of time.

How does lack of sleep affect my mental acuity? What mechanisms get worn down?


FC: Sleep is enormously important, and it affects a variety of mental mechanisms.  Without sleep you will be less alert and have a harder time thinking.  But one of the most surprising effects of sleep is actually its impact on the formation of memories.  When you study (or train for sports, etc.) one day, a lot of the “learning” takes place overnight.  Your brain goes back over the patterns of the previous day and consolidates them into the kind of long-term structure that will help you ace the test, sink the 3-pointer, and so forth.  Importantly, the benefits of sleep are much better when you get enough of it.  The first six hours don’t count for much; the last two hours count for a lot.  This means that studying will be much more effective if you pace it over several days and be sure to get a healthy amount of sleep every night.  Pulling a last-minute all-nighter is not an effective alternative, even if you put in the same total number of hours studying.


SW: How does caffeine affect my mental acuity? What can it compromise?


FC: Unsurprisingly, a lot of research indicates cognitive benefits from moderate caffeine use.  As with anything else, different people react in different ways, and you can certainly overdo it.  But, all else being equal, moderate caffeine intake is likely to improve your mental performance.  Just remember that your body will adapt to repeated use, meaning that the more you use caffeine the less difference it makes in your performance, and the more your performance actually decreases when you go without your “fix”.  (You probably knew this without science, anyway).


SW: Does studying in a social space (a library, a coffee shop, etc.) vs. studying in private (my room) make a difference to my brain?


FC:People vary in their optimal studying environment. When trying to choose an environment, I would suggest three rules. First, experiment with different options and keep notes on how well each works. Try a library for two hours, a coffee shop for two hours, and a desk for two hours. Take notes on how well each went. Compare your notes at the end, and choose the option that works best for you.  If you want help keeping track of your study habits, consider using a free website like “RescueTime”.Second, form regular study habits and construct a “study space” that gets used for studying only.  If the library works for you, then make a habit of going to the library regularly.  Your brain will get used to the library being a “study space”, making it easier for you to focus because of the habit.

Third, use your “study space” for studying only.  The power of the habit will be broken if you use the same space for talking with friends, checking facebook, or reading magazines.  It might help to leave your computer behind, or to use cheap programs like “Freedom” or “Antisocial” to turn your computer’s internet off, or to block email and social networking sites.  By removing these temptations, your brain will learn to associate your study space with studying only, and you will find it easier to focus.


SW: What is the optimal length of time to study for?  And how long is the most efficient study break?


FC: Those are great questions, and I’m afraid I don’t know the answer.  But I will make one suggestion: Schedule study breaks for yourself.  If you allow yourself to freely choose when to take breaks, this might have to bad consequences.  First, you could end up training yourself to choose breaks often — after all, they feel good!  Second, you could end up spending an inefficient amount of time and effort thinking, “is it time yet?”.  Instead, consider setting a timer.  You work until the timer goes off, and then you give yourself a break before returning to work.
For students who are interested in learning more about the science of studying, a good place to start is the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength” by Roy Baumeister (a psychologist who has done groundbreaking work on the topic) and John Tierney (a writer for the New York Times).  Just don’t pick it up until your exams are over!


Now that you know what’s going on up, treat your mind well in these final days of the semester. It’s the home stretch! Good luck!

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