Conquer These Four Supervillains to Unlock Your Superhero Brain
We are all superheroes, with incredible powers waiting to be unlocked. Instead of flying, you’re empowered to fly through books. You may not be bullet-proof, but your memory can be. And part of being a superhero is facing the forces trying to keep you down.
In my book Limitless, I introduce the four modern supervillains that are frequently getting in our way and making life harder. They keep us from reaching our true potential by stealing our productivity, prosperity, positivity, and peace of mind. And like comic book supervillains, they come in surprising and unexpected forms. Knowing how to recognize them is the first step in learning how to defeat them.
We live in the age of information. Anything we want to know, we can find with a few clicks. It isn’t simply that the information is easily accessed, it’s that we carry that access in our pockets. While this allows us to learn and grow more than any other generation before us, it also means we’re susceptible to information overload.
Information isn’t the enemy, or even the villain, it’s the consumption that we need to be wary of. The problem with digital deluge is two-fold. The first is that just like we can eat ourselves sick — even with healthy food — we can do the same with information. Too much of anything is overwhelming, and if we’re shoving information into our brain nonstop, the likelihood that we’ll retain much dwindles dramatically.
The second problem is that when we spend so much time consuming information, we also increase the odds that the quality of information goes down. In the same way that not all food is equally nutritious, not all information is intellectually nourishing. We form the habit of being on our devices, making it easier to mindlessly scroll while watching television or while we’re in bed.
To conquer this villain, we need to take control of not just the type of information we consume, but how frequently we consume it. Scheduling white space throughout the week can help combat the effects of digital deluge. This time should be spent relaxing. It doesn’t matter if that means taking ten minutes to meditate, taking a walk, or even doing some light reading, the important thing is we’re not actively working or looking at a device.
When we give our brain a chance to rest, we allow our executive functions to rest and our default network takes over. The default network is primarily made up of the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the angular gyrus. These areas become active when we’re engaged in passive tasks that don’t require executive functionality and higher-level cognition. But just because it’s active while we’re resting doesn’t mean nothing is happening.
We need our default network to help solidify memories, cement learning, and spark creativity. Have you ever been on a walk and the solution to a problem suddenly becomes crystal clear? That’s the default network at work. Our brain is constantly active, working to answer questions, come up with ideas, and solve problems but we can’t simply force our way through these processes. Allowing our brain the time and space it needs will increase our productivity.
How often do you check your phone? Ten times a day? More? Or even more to the point, when was the last time you went somewhere without your phone on you? A 2019 study found that the average American checks their phone 96 times a day. That’s once every ten minutes. Even more alarming, in 2020 that number went up to over 160 times a day, and moved to a shocking 262 times per day in 2021. That’s once every four minutes. In less than two years we more than doubled the frequency that we are looking at our devices.
Becoming reliant on our devices is one thing, but this constant distraction is enhanced the more connected we are. We check email while working, pop in and out of texts and messenger apps, and are subject to a constant barrage of notifications. For many of us, this constant connectivity is expected in our work place, where emails full of high priority demands come in at all hours of the day and night.
All of these notifications and the impulse to check our devices has disastrous consequences on our brain health. It reduces our ability to focus and concentrate, instead rewarding us to be distracted. Every time we get a notification, we get a dopamine hit, rewarding us for constantly checking our devices.
Studies have shown that the more we multitask, the more difficult executive functionality becomes. Things like concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, creativity, and emotional resilience become more difficult to maintain and execute. Multitasking also increases the amount of energy our brain needs. If we aren’t taking breaks, sleeping properly, and getting an increase in brain nutrients, we end up depleted, dropping our mental and physical performance significantly.
To combat this digital supervillain, we need to take active breaks from being constantly connected. Turn off notifications and schedule uninterrupted time to focus on specific tasks. The more we’re able to focus and limit distractions, the stronger our entire frontal lobe becomes, ensuring that we’re able to access higher cognitive function when we need it.
It’s not just the nonstop connectivity that wears on our brain. We become accustomed to having everything at our digital fingertips. Things like phone numbers, addresses, or even solving math problems are no longer a priority to remember. We can simply look it up.
Using technology to help us free brain space isn’t entirely a bad thing. Writing down a grocery list in the morning can help free your cognitive power throughout your work day. Same with writing down a list of must-do tasks before we go to bed. It can free that space so that our brain isn’t holding onto those items, causing us stress and wasting valuable brain energy that could be put to better use.
The problem is that the less we use our short-term memory, the more those pathways degrade. And because our long-term memory stores are reliant and strengthened every time we exercise our recall, those end up suffering too. Memory, like anything, is a muscle. The less we exercise it, the weaker it becomes. Which means this supervillain needs a focused approach to be defeated.
We want to practice memorizing information, especially if it’s something we use all the time. It may not be necessary to know how to get to a restaurant once, but being able to navigate the city live in without GPS is an important skill. Memorize phone numbers of people we talk to frequently and actively work on recalling pieces of information throughout our day and our week. These exercises strengthen the neural pathways in the brain and can even help create new pathways, a process known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is a vital process in maintaining brain health as we age. Studies have shown that it helps combat age related brain diseases and can even help a damaged brain heal after injury. This doesn’t mean we have to give up using technology as a helping hand entirely. But we do want to actively work towards learning new things frequently and exercising our memory muscles whenever possible.
Of all the supervillains, this one is the trickiest. It’s natural to want to glean information before making a decision, or to better understand a subject. In fact, researching a topic so we can have an informed opinion can help minimize misunderstandings and facilitate in-depth conversations.
Unfortunately, as the world produces more information, the harder it can be to find quality information. As true as it is that we live in the age of information, it’s equally true that we live in the age of misinformation. The real problem is that we can become overly reliant on certain sources, letting their opinions form our own. Or, we go into a search expecting certain answers and stop looking when our opinions are confirmed.
In either scenario, we’re dulling our critical thinking and reasoning skills. This eventually impacts our problem-solving abilities and overall executive functionality. When we become reliant on obtaining digital information, we stop taking the time to solve problems or think through difficult situations on our own.
Digital deduction can be defeated by actively working to analyze situations without using technology or outside resources first. By taking the time to exercise our memory, we may find we know more about a subject than we initially thought. And if we have to look up and verify facts, we should seek out new sources of information rather than relying on a few preferred resources.
We can further exercise our critical thinking and reasoning skills by facing information we disagree with. Do we disagree because that’s the conclusion we reached based on our knowledge? Or are we relying on someone else’s opinion? When it comes to topics we do need to research, we should find sources of information that cover all facets of the problem so that we can evaluate them equally. Even if we end up with the same result we began with, the deductive processing, reasoning, and evaluation will strengthen our overall cognitive functionality.
Technology as a whole isn’t a supervillain—it’s a tool. We can use it to enhance our lives and our learning. Connecting on this website is an excellent example. If we make a conscious decision on how to control the way we use technology, we can be sure we’re using it and it doesn’t end up using us.