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011619-Truck_in_Rearview-AGM.jpg Photo: Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner

Smartening up behind the wheel

7 tips for brain training and better focus on the road.

All those hours driving... hundreds become thousands, thousands become tens of thousands. For some truckers, tens of thousands become millions. Over all those many, long miles, what's going on up there?

What are you thinking, that is—or are things just blurring into the highway lane lines? The good news is that while your brain is getting older, it can also get better. No matter what your age, your brain wants to stay young, and it wants you to help it.

A big reason mental sharpness declines as people age is that they fall into routines and ruts. They're putting less effort into being creative—they're not trying as many new things and don't have as many dragons to slay.

Brian Ryder, a consultant who helps businesses get their employees to think more creatively, would agree. He says there are a number of reasons you should take time now—and every day—to rejuvenate and freshen your brain's ability.

Here are seven ways you can:

Take five. During a meal or snack or even a cup of coffee, use all five senses at once: taste, smell, hearing, seeing and touch. Observe each sense's intake fully.

"It's something we don't do often enough," says Ryder. "When you do this on a regular basis, you make all of your senses keen."

It's the same principal, he says, that helps blind people develop extra-sharp hearing. They "tune in" so strongly to their sense of hearing (since the dominant sense, seeing, is unavailable) that the sense becomes acutely perceptive.

Think back. Take a few moments to visualize a place you enjoy. It might be a room in your home, the 18th hole at the golf course, even your favorite watering hole. Picture each item there, as clearly as possible, in your mind. Try to recall the sounds, the smells, what you feel there.

This type of exercise helps your memory and imagination improve, but "don't get frustrated if you can't remember everything you want," notes Ryder. Instead, "next time you're there, use your senses to experience the place, then remember it another time."

"The point is not to see how much you can remember, but just to go through the process," he emphasizes.

People who can see, he points out, seldom close their eyes and try to recreate a place—it's just not something we have to do. But by going through that process, we help our brains process information better.

Change things. It might seem strange, but suddenly shifting to a new type of activity moves your brain onto a higher plateau. It can be as simple as switching from doing the newspaper's word search to doing the crossword puzzle.

Take a different route to a destination once in a while, even if it means a few more minutes driving. Your brain will be stimulated by the change.

"This doesn't mean you have to change every aspect of your life all the time," Ryder notes. "That would be too stressful. But when you can vary your hobbies and free-time activities more, it's beneficial to sharpening your creativity."

Back it up. One great way to solve a problem, experts say, is to move it to the back burner. You might have thought "sleeping on it" is the answer, and it might be, according to Ryder—but an active physical/passive mental state would be better.

Stop thinking about the problem or challenge and exercise, take a shower, whatever. Your subconscious will move into the fore on the problem, and the next time you tackle it, you'll more likely have the solution.

"That's why you have good ideas when you're standing in line somewhere or when you're not trying to come up with an idea," says Ryder.

Get focused. Today's multi-demand living might have you hopping in a hundred different directions, which is why it's a good idea to hone your mental focus.

The best time to do this is while you're exercising, and particularly aerobic exercise, Ryder suggests. Pick a focal point and stare at it, concentrating on only that. If your mind wanders, gently pull your attention back to the focal point. Think about nothing—just look at the focal point. As thoughts enter your mind, gently push them aside.

"It's like meditation, but you're really not meditating," says Ryder. "What you are doing is sharpening your mind's ability to concentrate hard on a single thing."

You might think that later you'll pick your focal point and ponder one burning issue while you stare at the point. Not so. Just doing the exercise, with the mind-blanking aspect, increases your overall ability to concentrate deeply.

Let it flow. When you're trying to think of a solution to a problem, learn to tune out your "inner critic" and into all your ideas.

"We censor a lot of ideas before they've even had the chance to form," notes Ryder, "and sometimes wisely so. But many times, it's the programming of parents, teachers and authority figures who told us to be quiet or that our ideas weren't good."

If you cut through that self-doubt, a lot of half-formed ideas can come through, and some answer you're looking for might be within them. As you learn to censor your mind less, it becomes a self-improving cycle, and you find yourself more open-minded to your own ideas.

Fuel your brain. Don't forget the physical side of helping your brain. Personal trainers always recommend getting regular cardio exercise and eating a diet low in saturated fat. Science confirms that both of these can help the brain. Getting enough sleep also plays a major role in maximizing brainpower.

And eat fish: they're rich in Omega-3 oils that in many studies have shown to be brain food. If you can't stand fish, find fish-oil supplements.

"It's really not hard to sharpen your thinking and improve your mind power," Ryder contends. "A lot of people don't try it because they think that mentally, they 'are where they are.' It's not so. You have a lot of room for improvement."

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