In November, writer Belle-Beth Cooper published an article for the Huffington Post titled 10 Surprising Things That Benefit Our Brains That You Can Do Every Day. This piece explained the surprising differences between how we think our brains work and how they actually work. Reading further, it goes on to explain different ideas about how the human brain operates and how we can optimize our brain usage knowing these facts.
These notions are useful in a multitude of different ways and can be utilized for any aspect of your daily life. We decided to put Cooper's "10 Things" to the test and see exactly how they can apply to the game of poker. So strap in, grab a bowl of blueberries bigger than Jamie Gold's, and get ready to optimize your brain for poker.
1. Your brain does creative work better when you're tired.
Throughout her research, Cooper sifted through information regarding body clocks and exactly how our brain works at specific times of day. What she found was that while the brain is better suited for doing demanding and analytical work during your awake and alert hours, the brain actually handles creative work better when you're tired.
According to Cooper, "If you're tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. It's also a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas or concepts. These are both good things when it comes to creative work, since this kind of work requires us to make new connections, be open to new ideas and think in new ways. So a tired, fuzzy brain is much more use to us when working on creative projects."
While capitalizing on a late-night creative session may be perfect for an artist or a writer, a poker player may find him or herself better suited to think the opposite. Poker is an analytical game where you're constantly sizing up your opponents, finding the correct betting sizes, and searching for cracks in your opponent's game that you can exploit at a later time period. A strong poker game thrives on making connections in how your opponents play, and a brain that is missing out on these connections could lead to a lower profitability in the long run.
In order to maximize brain efficiency, a winning poker player may choose to start their sessions a little earlier in the day. In doing so, a player can increase their chances of capitalizing on the moments in which the brain is most ready to attack with sharp and analytical thought processes.
2. Stress can change the size of your brain (and make it smaller).
As we engage in our daily lives, we all fall victim to stress in one form or another. However, through Cooper's research, she found that prolonged stress actually has the potential to have long-term adverse effects on the brain.
In a study referenced by Cooper, she found that rats who were exposed to chronic stress actually had their hippocampuses shrink in size. For those like myself who are not well-read on sections of the brains and their exact functionality, the hippocampus is the section of the brain that is integral for making memories. It is also responsible for spatial memory (think the ability to easily navigate around a familiar city) and general thought of navigation.
Experiencing high levels of stress is obviously never a pleasant experience. While it's common for everyone to experience daily stressors, it's a no-brainer (I'm surprised it took me this long to make that joke) that prolonged stress can have adverse effects on your poker game. This is especially true if said stresses are related to your game. When sitting down at the tables, try your hardest to remove the stresses of the outside world from your thoughts and instead focus solely on the task at hand. This may be difficult, as bankroll size or game difficulty may be on the list of things that stress you out, but ultimately stress will cloud your judgment and could contribute to negative results.
It is important for poker players to recognize when there is too much stress in their lives that could adversely affect the level of performance at the tables. It's often best to not play when you have too much stress outside of poker circulating in your life because it will cause a negative impact on your game.
3. It is literally impossible for our brains to multitask.
Did you hear that, player who is playing open-face Chinese poker on his or her iPad while at the same time listening to music, engaging in a conversation with the player to their right, devouring a meatball sub, and trying to grind out a winning session in an already difficult game?
Alright, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.
As Cooper points out in her article, multitasking is something that has long been lauded as an optimal skill for a human to accomplish. Being able to tackle many different projects at the same time and making satisfactory progress on all of them is something that is appreciated in the workplace, and I've seen folks go as far as to highlight their excellent ability to multitask on their professional résumé. However, while you think you may be making significant progress on all fronts while multitasking, science disagrees.
At the core, multitasking is actually a concept called "context switching" wherein rather than doing multiple tasks at the same time, you are actually quickly switching back and forth between tasks. This leads to an error rate of 50 percent and it will ultimately take you longer to do things. By doing this, rather than focusing your entire brain on one task, you're giving less attention to an array of tasks and thus likely performing less optimally across the board.
So next time you're sitting at the table and find yourself doing five different things on top of simply clicking buttons, take a moment to reevaluate exactly how much focus you're putting into the game ahead of you. Perhaps you'll find your abilities to find new spots against your opponents and ultimately make more money will dramatically increase.
4. Naps improve your brain's day-to-day performance.
This is terrific news because like I'm assuming most of you do, I absolutely love sleep. Research shows that naps improve both memory performance and the ability to learn. Let's take a look at exactly what happens in terms of memory first:
Initial memories are stored in the hippocampus of the brain. While memories are there, they are still fragile and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is tasked with remembering more information during the same time period. When you take a nap, these memories are pushed to the neocortex of the brain, which serves as a more long-term storage area.
Over the course of a long session of cards, you may pick up specific tells or betting patterns of your opponents. If the session continues to drag on, you may become distracted from a game and these memories could easily slip out of your hippocampus and simply be forgotten. A quick nap can help to solidify these as long-term memories and lead to improved play against the same set of opponents.
In terms of the ability to learn, napping essentially clears out information from the brain's temporary storage areas and makes room for new information to come flooding in. In studies referenced by Cooper, groups of subjects who napped prior to taking on a task always performed better than the subjects who stayed awake prior to the task.
By opening up as much space as possible for your brain to learn new information, you are essentially maximizing the opportunities to make informed decisions against your opponents at the table. At the very least, you can take comfort in the fact that according to studies in the area of napping, you will be performing at a higher level than if you've not taken a nap before sidling up to the table.
5. Your vision trumps all other senses.
In terms of recognition, vision ranks the highest out of our five senses. To drive this point home, take a piece of information that you've heard. Three days later, you will recall just 10 percent of it. Add a picture to that and the recognition rate jumps up to 65 percent.
In the poker world, this idea makes me think of players who always wear very dark sunglasses to the table. In terms of how the brain processes information, these players are depriving themselves of their most vital sense. While obviously you can still see while wearing sunglasses, you are darkening the picture that your brain receives and thus lessening exactly what you see. This is working in the opposite direction of optimal poker strategy, in which you provide yourself with as much information as possible to make educated decisions.
This also ties into the third point about multitasking. Paying attention at the table can be a highly vision-related task, and you should be looking around at your opponents at all times, hoping to gather any and all information that you can. You may think that you can fold your hand, look back down at your iPad, and hear what's going on at the table, but your depriving yourself of capitalizing on your most valuable sense: vision.
6. Introversion and extroversion come from different wiring in the brain.
This one is a bit complicated. Typically, introverts are described as timid or shy while extroverts are individuals that are have more outgoing or gregarious personalities. However, the concepts of introversion and extroversion go a lot deeper than that.
Essentially, people with different personality types view and process rewards in different ways. Extroverts' brains respond differently when a gamble pays off than introverts do. This means that social behaviors, whether it's telling a joke at a party or choosing to talk to someone of the opposite sex, elicit different responses psychologically from extroverts. These feelings are viewed as rewards by the brain and thus the brain pushes extroverts into taking risks and seeking out unfamiliar territory.
We've all played poker with both the guy who never stops talking as well as the one who never says a word to anyone during a six-hour session. From an introvert's point of view, the extroverted player's behavior can be viewed as brash and even sometimes downright annoying, depending on the circumstances. However, know that these behaviors are how an extrovert's brain seeks pleasure, this could actually put an introvert in a profitable spot.
Since psychologically seeking out gambles that pay off provides a rewarding feeling to an extrovert's brain, this could quite often lead to an extrovert playing more loose or aggressively. An extrovert is used to seeking out stimulation from surprising situations, and knowing that kind of information about a player could lead to the creation of some very profitable situations. Obviously this is not saying that all players who talk a lot play like maniacs, but certain types of people do tend to fall into certain behavioral categories on a more general level.
Next time you're playing against an observed extrovert, keep this information in mind. You may already have a leg up on how this individual will approach the game.
7. We tend to like people who make mistakes more.
In poker, this idea is as clear as day. Since each player at the table has a vested interest in his or her fellow players' actions in the game, a certain likability will definitely surface when a player is making mistakes left and right. A player who makes mistakes at the table suddenly becomes a well of profit to his opponents, and what's not to like about adding chips to your stack because of a mistake that your opponent made?
Looking at this concept from the opposite perspective tells us that other players at the table should like us more if we make mistakes. And why not? If we are perceived as a perfect player at the table, others around us will certainly become frustrated.
Each player in a poker game sits down with one goal in mind: to make money. If there's a player at the table who is exhibiting a high level of skill and thus stopping you from achieving your one goal, you inherently will have a biased attitude toward them. It is that biased attitude formed that could cause you to play differently against a good player, which is exactly what your opponents want. If you are able to recognize this ahead of time, you will be less inclined to get pushed off of your game.
8. Meditation can rewire your brain for the better.
Cooper's article focuses on the following benefits of meditation: less anxiety, more creativity, and better memory. The science on exactly how meditation has these effects on the brain is actually quite complex, and gone into in much more vivid detail through Cooper's research. For now, we'll focus on these benefits and how meditation can help to improve your game.
Meditation has been a long-explored concept in correlation with succeeding at poker. The concept of the actual act is fairly simple, as meditation involves a person inducing a mental state of relaxation in order to achieve a "clear head." This mode of consciousness should, in theory, lead to making better decisions at the table. By reducing anxiety and improving memory functions, meditation can be a useful tool of preparation to truly get yourself in the zone before a task that will require supreme focus, such as multi-tabling online or sitting down for a big buy-in live tournament.
For a deeper look on the benefits of meditation, you can check out a piece done earlier this year by Lynn Gilmartin as part of her Stay Stacked series. In this video, Gilmartin sits down with Mish Schaffer, a transformative and creative meditation facilitator, reiki practitioner, naturopath, and owner of Meditation with Mish.
9. Exercise can reorganize the brain and boost your willpower.
This is a schtick that we've all heard over and over again. It's a clear fact that exercise can increase mood levels and lead to a stronger, healthier body. Then laziness sets in, we sit down at the tables, and grind for 10 hours with our only movement being to go to a bathroom or to pick up a burger from the nearest restaurant.
While combating laziness is a difficult thing to do, an added brain-related benefit may help to serve as motivation to get up and start exercising.
According to research in Cooper's piece, "Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks."
It's almost as if this benefit is solely for poker players! Memory, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving are all areas of thought that poker players utilize on a daily basis. Whether its remembering an opponent's betting patterns or reworking your way through a hand in order to pick off an opponent's potential bluff, staying active and fit will improve your cognitive functions and boost your ability to play at a higher level for longer periods of time.
10. You can make your brain think time is going slowly by doing new things.
As your day goes on, the brain takes in information from our senses and reorganizes it in a way that will eventually make sense to us. This means that our sense of time is actually just a lot of information that is presented to us by our brains in a specific way.
"When our brains receive new information, it doesn't necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn't take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated."
These means that when you hear fellow players complain that they've been "folding all night," they are actually experiencing familiar situations repeatedly. An exciting, new bit of information occurs when you opt to play a hand, allowing for a multitude of outcomes and providing a rich and exciting time for your brain.
Another way to take advantage of this fact is to try out a new game. If you sit in a $1/$2 no-limit hold'em cash game every night, try something completely different like $4/$8 Omaha eight-or-better. If you have limited experience in a game like this, it will provide new information for your brain to process. This will lead to an exciting night that you will perceive as both long and engaging (unless you go broke early on, that is!).
*Lead photo courtesy of consciouslifenews.com.