Discomfort Can Make You Smarter (Try It!)

I love camping in the wilderness with the stars for company. The noise of chirping crickets, bubbling streams, rustling leaves, and not a soul around. I’m all for it.

Even the lack of a pillow, the sharp objects poking through a skinny sleeping mat, eating dehydrated vegetables, and smelling like an armpit for a few days don’t deter me. There’s adventure in it, and it makes me feel like the Marlboro man, without the cigarettes, horse, or hat. And thankfully my wife and kids love it, too.

A recent camping trip however was nothing like this. Birds, which I normally love, began chirping feverishly at 4 AM each morning. It wasn’t even remotely light yet. I was ready to introduce them to a brick.

Then there was the noise from fellow campers, especially the Irish couple who, after a couple of drinks, must have forgotten that sex in a tent only means that others can’t see you. Couple that with the artificial lighting in the camp ground which shone through the tent like a SWAT team’s searchlight, the traffic noise from a nearby road, and what we had was a smorgasbord of shittiness.

After grumbling about it a bit, I gave it some thought and you know what? It’s actually good for us.

I reminded myself that the greatest rewards come from solving the greatest problems, and that even small irritable problems such as a noisy campground, when solved, can bring immense rewards.

So many things today which make our lives better, were birthed from frustration and bad experiences. If we’d stayed at an amazing 5-star hotel with white cotton sheets, and quiet soundproof rooms we’d likely never get to even thinking of ways to make our experience better.

As it was, my family began discussing first the known ways of making things better. Ear plugs and eye masks were obvious contenders, but pretty soon we were thinking of tent fabric which could be coated in some black-out paint so as to ensure darkness.

It made me wonder about inventions such as noise cancelling headphones. What an awesome invention. Surely not one dreamt up while soaking in a bath full of goats milk at the Ritz, while eating caviar, sipping champagne, and listening to Mozart.

I’m not aware of anyone that has tried to solve the noise problem for camping but I am aware of entrepreneurs who’ve taken to solving the noise problem in busy noisy cities. Take, for example, the Sono which cuts out noise in your apartment.

Someone’s discomfort was the catalyst to this invention.

When we’re in our comfort zones, we are typically… well, comfortable, and as such often unaware of problems that exist around us. This is exactly how so many husbands get into trouble while watching sport on the TV and failing to notice their frustrated wife who is fixing dinner, dealing with ratty kids and answering the phone. Let it be a warning. Comfortable can lead to uncomfortable in the blink of an angry wife’s eye.

Being exposed to problems and diversity is really valuable in building connections in our brains and as such we should grab every opportunity to exercise our brain muscle.

One reason that international travel is so healthy for the brain is due to the diversity of experiences on offer.

Great cities of the world provide some of this diversity. London, for example, which I mention simply because it’s a city I know well and have lived in for a long time, provides incredible diversity and stimulation. I mean, you can step out the door and go buy a French magazine from a Lebanese-owned store where the cashier speaks Czech, and the couple in front of you at the counter are a Polish and a Pakistani communicating in English.

Thinking is one of the toughest things to do, which is probably why so few give it a whirl.

The scientific research community has discovered a process called neuroplasticity. This basically means that the neural pathways and brain cells continue to develop throughout our lives. This process slows with age but doesn’t stop completely unless you enter politics were we have undeniable evidence that the human brain undergoes rapid atrophy.

Below are 11 proven methods of effectively increasing the neural pathway connections in our brains and as such making us smarter:

  1. Develop friendships with diverse groups of people. The more diverse the better.
  2. Try something new. Learn a new language, learn to play the guitar, learn to dance. You get the picture…
  3. Performing neurobic exercises. These are exercises which challenge our brain. This week, for example, I’m brushing my teeth with my left hand, greeting my kids every morning with a different language and telling my wife I love her in a different language each night. Choose whatever works for you. Swear at your boss in Arabic for a week. You’ll probably get away with it if you do so while smiling. It’ll make you feel better and you’ll be learning a new language. Simple things such as choosing a different route to drive to work in the morning engages your brain at a higher level.
  4. Strategy based thinking. This is thinking which involves mental exercise. Good examples are games: crossword puzzles, sudoku puzzles, scrabble, chess or checkers.
  5. Memorize things. Next time you go shopping don’t take a list. Look at the list before leaving and work to memorize it.
  6. Solve math problems in your head for fun.
  7. Music has been shown to have a profound impact on our brains. Learning music, and playing musical instruments engages our brains in unique ways. If you’re not musical then doing this will likely open you up to new interactions with a different group of people, something which itself is good for your brain.
  8. If you’ve got children, talk to them. The more conversations you have with them the smarter they will be. Talk about everything and anything. Kids are sponges!
  9. Physical exercise has been linked to overall thinking and brain function.
  10. Physical contact such as giving and receiving hugs is important in creating new brain pathways so grab your partner and go upstairs already. Surely if a hug is good then a romp between the sheets is great.
  11. Rid yourself of negativity. Review the groups that influence your life. Research has shown that pervasive negative influence and negative people are strongly associated with poor intellectual thought. Who you choose to associate with matters. Choose wisely. If there is a negative pessimistic group or person in your life kick them to the gutter.

The common theme in the list above is stepping out of your comfort zone. If it’s uncomfortable it’s likely engaging your brain, making you think and making you smarter.

I’d love to know of additional methods you’ve used or know of. Share them in the comments section below.

– Chris

“A man grows most tired while standing still.” – Chinese Proverb


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