7 magic inputs to keep your brain working at its best

If the brain is a system, and the outputs include decision making, sensing, problem solving, creating, collaborating and more, then the quality of these outputs are dependent on the quality of inputs to the system. Most of us don’t consider sleeping, eating and hydrating as anything more than satisfying a biological need, yet these, and other factors play a huge part in how well you turn up each day.

Walnuts are great brain food…

Walnuts are great brain food…

There is no doubt that teaching, and leading teachers, is a cognitively demanding activity. However, we don’t often stop and reflect on how this is all working, and what we can do to improve our cognitive performance. If you think about your brain as a black-box system – inputs, some magic inside and some outputs – then several ideas emerge.

 There’s a pretty high cost to running the black box – your brain is only 2-3% of your body mass, yet consumes 20-25% of your energy budget, no matter what you are doing.

We know that the outputs are complex – we make around 35,000 decisions a day, and in a day of teaching, over 1500 of these are educationally focused. We also engage with a variety of people, constantly check in (unconsciously) on our social dimensions (see the SCARF model by David Rock), resolve conflicts, collaborate, plan and make complex judgments. It’s the cognitive equivalent of a marathon a day.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

As much as we can identify the outputs, when I ask people about naming the inputsthe obvious is often ignored. The black box that is the brain needs 7 quality inputs to work well, day in and day out. Mess with any of these inputs creates two issues: in the short term, we reduce our cognitive capacity, reducing the effectiveness of the outputs above. Chronic disrespect of any of these seven results in inflammation, degenerative diseases, for instance Alzheimer’s, and acute failures such as stroke. So what are the seven magic inputs?

  1. Sleep (sufficient quantity and quality)

  2. Nutrition (particularly, it seems, a plant-based diet)

  3. Hydration

  4. Exercise-derived fitness

  5. Stress management and mindfulness

  6. Social networks and engagement

  7. Neuroplasticity – a constant learning state in the brain

I’m going to explore the impact of each of these inputs on the brain and cognition in a series of future posts, but for the moment I want to stay with the macro view. If you were training for a triathlon, it is likely that you will have strategies for each of these inputs, from nutrition, hydration and fitness to mindset, team support and sleep management. Yet, unless we are reminded, often via a significant health event, we routinely ignore these elements in day to day life

Think, for a moment, about a hypothetical Friday night: you have had a very busy week of teaching, planning, meetings and maybe even exams or performance feedback. Your immune system is a little run down, and you’ve slept badly all week. You are now at a noisy food court, hungry and thirsty, slowly rotating scanning your food options. You find yourself unable to make a decision – your magic black box is running on empty. 

The point I make here is that well before the exhaustion of your inputs your brain, well before the potentially obvious system fatigue, you will be experiencing unconscious and subtle degradation to your output. So, I invite you to give yourself a rating out of ten for each of the above dimensions. Do you have any strong domains? What are your weak inputs? If you want to be at your best day to day, and live a long, cognitively agile life, then it’s well worth a look at improving what you put into the black box on your shoulders.

Of the 7 magic inputs, which have the biggest impact on you being at your best?