It’s that time of year again!
The weather is getting warmer and you are starting to think about your summer plans. While fun in the sun is likely on your agenda, chances are you’re also worried about getting ahead, catching up, or crossing things off your to-do list. According to neuroscience research, there are a few things you can do for your brain over the summer to keep it sharp without enrolling in an intense academic summer program (this is no knock on those—go for it, if you want to!). The ideas below are based on research cited in psychologist Louis Cozolino’s 2013 book The Social Neuroscience of Education. (If you’re looking for a book to read over the summer, add it to your list!) Here are some ideas about your brain on summer:
There is a ton of research out now about the connections between exercise and your brain’s ability to retain new information (read about some of it in a recent Signet blog post). Exercising increases blood flow to the brain, which allows for more connections between neurons (brain cells). The more connections between neurons you have, the more new information you can absorb, which is the whole premise of learning! Plus, getting yourself into the habit of exercising over the summer will increase the chances that you’ll continue into the school year.
Stress is bad for the brain. Over time, it reduces your memory capacity by eroding a part of your brain called the hippocampus. If you can spend the summer minimizing feelings of stress and anxiety, you will start your brain off on the right foot next September. Ask for help, share frustrations, and figure out a way to address stressors in life rather than just suffering through them.
Better yet, stay on some vague semblance of a sleep schedule! Your brain needs you to “power down” each night so that it can use that time to make sense of all the new experiences you had that day. Without sufficient sleep, it’s likely that things learned in a given day will not be retained, so the more you experience and learn in a given day, the more sleep you need. The teenage “catch up” tactic of sleeping all weekend (or all summer) to make up for lost weeknight sleep turns out to be counterproductive because it confuses your body’s natural rhythm. Be nice to your body and give it the down time it needs this summer to smarten you up! (As an aside, drinking lots of caffeine is not the same thing as sleeping. Your body needs sleep, not caffeine, in order to absorb new information.)
Expose yourself to new things, and then repeat those new things.
Both exposure and repetition strengthen connections between neurons, which builds brain capacity for learning new things. So, you could learn something totally random and “just for fun” this summer (not something stress-inducing!), and the experience of learning and practicing something new will help keep your brain active. Tackling required community service hours, for example, could be a great way to expose yourself to something new.
Stay socially connected.
Too much isolation is bad for human brains, so don’t shut your door and hibernate for three straight months! Interact with people, (even if it isn’t your favorite thing to do), because social interaction stimulates you to think in different ways, which, in turn, strengthens your brain’s readiness to absorb new information. Whether you’re a socialite or a introvert, take a moment to reflect on how a recent interaction has caused you to think differently about something. That pause in thinking was growth! Look for ways to repeat that experience over the summer, in whatever way makes sense for you.
Whether you’re staying home to watch your little brother all summer or gallivanting off to Rome to learn Italian, these tips will hopefully help you to take advantage of your time so that your brain is primed and ready to continue learning next year and beyond.