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Dr. of Law: Super Genius Made Simple

Posted on 15 October 2008

Q: My brain’s experiencing brownout. Analysis, creativity, memory—everything seems sluggish. How can I sharpen my mental ax?

A: Dr. of Law, himself a frequent sufferer of stupid sieges, looks forward to the day neuroprosthetic smart chips become available at RadioShacks everywhere. For now, sadly, we all must soldier on with the miraculous “wetware” nature’s given us. Fortunately, the human brain, like your cousin Joey’s ’84 Camaro, can be tweaked for better performance.

Atop your neck sit about three pounds of gelatinous sweetbreads containing billions of cells. Researchers are only beginning to unravel the mysteries of cognition—as one sage put it, if the brain were simple enough to easily understand, we’d be too stupid to understand it. But on the most elemental level, the processing of thoughts takes place when electrical impulses propagate along nerve fibers, jumping from one neuron to its neighbors via neurotransmitters released in the synapses, or tiny gaps, that separate them.

All kinds of things—chronic diseases, a significant trauma to the head, alcoholism—can impair long-term mental performance. More likely to hinder your thinking process, say, this afternoon, are stress, overwork, sleep deprivation, and other familiar characteristics of the lawyer’s and law student’s life. Here’s what to do:

Get Physical
Growing evidence suggests aerobic workouts may enhance brain power—possibly by boosting brain cell growth.

Mix It Up
In animal studies, fresh cognitive stimulation fosters new neuronal connections. Instead of sticking your nose in a brief or a book all day, occasionally treat your brain to some varied intellectual stimulation. Play music, read the paper, talk about something—anything—other than the law. Flat-out mental slacking is also a good idea. “Find out how long you can go at a steady pace before your battery needs recharging,” says Dr. David C. Agerter, chairman of the department of family medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “My threshold is about every six weeks, then I need a long weekend off.” Short-term breaks are important, too. Practically speaking, you’ll accomplish more by working or studying for six 20-minute intervals than by grinding away for two solid hours.

If you’re having trouble retaining information, your problem may not be faulty brain function but rather a simple (though common) failure to encode the data in the first place. Next time you come across essential information, concentrate when you hear it or read it. Repeat it to yourself. Let it sink in for a moment. There, now you’ve got it.

Practice, Practice
To store new information permanently, memories must be consolidated. To do this, affected neurons must fire vigorously and often. That’s why repetition is such a key to acquiring expertise in everything from case law to golf. Use the flash cards; go over the facts of the case one more time.

Consider Drugs
The caffeine in a cup or two of joe can help you concentrate, but don’t overdo it—too much of the drug can make you anxious and distracted. The jury’s still out on herbals. Some studies suggest phosphatidylserine (PS), a natural substance, may slightly enhance memory. Research on other heavily hyped cognitive supplements, like ginkgo biloba, has yielded mixed results, and long-term side effects remain unknown.

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