Ask The Brain: Should I Use This Study Aid?
I am your brain. Yup, that’s me, the three pound chunk of tissue floating inside your skull. I hold all of your darkest thoughts and your deepest secrets (don’t worry, I won’t tell), and I control almost all of your movements. Right now, I’m talking to you through this computer screen. Or, wait, aren’t you technically talking to yourself? Whatever. Right now, I’m making your eyes move so that they look at the letters on the screen, quickly processing each word, and talking to other parts of myself so that everything you’re reading makes sense. Make sense?
I’m pretty complex, and I do a lot for you, so that life seems nice and easy. But, I’m also pretty sensitive — I can only do so much without being taken care of once in awhile! Let’s take finals week, for example. I know, it’s a tough time for you with an exam everyday but, trust me, it’s a tough time for me too. The endless memorization and the sleepless nights take a huge toll on me. And don’t get me started on all the caffeine! Too much of that stuff makes me crazy.
I get it though. You need all those study aids — whether it’s caffeine, music, or even prescription drugs — to get through tough exam weeks. But, too much of anything can be bad. Let me explain.
Caffeine helps you stay awake. It helps me keep you awake and alert, so you have more time to cram in as many notes as possible before you unload them all on test day. There’s a neurotransmitter in me called adenosine. Usually, when it binds to my receptors, it makes me less active, and it makes you want to call it a night and go to bed. But, when you gulp down that Mountain Dew, Red Bull, or white chocolate mocha frappuccino, the caffeine molecules block my adenosine receptors, preventing adenosine from binding, and making you ready to study. Sure, caffeine is good in moderate amounts (like a regular cup of coffee), and it certainly helps when you need to get a lot of stuff done late at night. It may even improve short-term memory.
But, too much isn’t so good for me. And, if isn’t good for me, it definitely isn’t good for you. Remember that time you decided it would be a good idea to drink two Rockstar energy drinks the night before an exam? Wasn’t too pretty, was it? You were nervous, and I couldn’t stop your beating heart or your twitching muscles from slowing down. So, think twice before taking in that second energy drink or that fourth cup of coffee. It may be too much to handle.
It’s finals week. You’ve got piles and piles of notes in front of you that you need to review. Behind you, your roommate is playing his guitar, singing a tune. Outside, are your typical, loud college students enjoying one last night of fun before the exams begin. You want to give in, but you’ve got to focus. How? (that’s a rhetorical question because I’m a brain, and I know everything)
A few of your friends take adderall, a prescription drug used by patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Adderall improves the focus of individuals with ADHD, as it mimics the effects of a couple of my neurotransmitters: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Epinephrine and norepinephrine give you a fight-or-flight response that makes you more responsive and alert, while dopamine rewards this behavior, so you continue to stay focused. Sounds good, right? Well, yeah, it is…if you have ADHD. If you don’t have ADHD, adderall may help you pay attention while you study, but I’ll be wayyy too stimulated. Your heart will beat faster, you may feel the jitters, and you’ll likely get really nervous. So, maybe stick to a moderate use of caffeine. Adderall can be bad for me and, don’t forget, it’s illegal to take without a prescription.
Remember that time when your mom forced you to take piano lessons, but then you stopped because you thought it wasn’t cool? Maybe you should’ve reconsidered. It turns out learning an instrument at a young age makes you more focused when you grow, and it allows you to more easily balance multiple tasks at once. You hear that — I could’ve been so much more if you stuck with piano! Instead, I’m souped up on bucket-loads of caffeine!
Playing music while you study may also help you concentrate. Music with a calming rhythm or moderate tempo can help you stay focused on the task at hand. But, loud music with prominent lyrics can be really disrupting, especially if you’re trying to memorize a list of information. Moral of the story: don’t play Adele while you study, because you’ll immediately sing along with a broken heart and tears streaming down your face. And I won’t be able to stop because nothing can stop Adele.
It’s so precious, so valuable, yet it seems like you can never get any when you need it the most. But, hey — you can’t always get what you want (that song will be stuck in your head all day…sorry).
While you study, you’re likely going to be learning new concepts and memorizing a bunch of facts. Like that time you had to learn the entire citric acid cycle for the MCAT, or every bone and muscle in the body when you took anatomy. Part of me, the hippocampus, is super important when it comes to consolidating new information into memories, so that you can recall it with ease when you’re taking an exam. And, a lot of this consolidation takes place while you sleep. Yup, while you’re fast asleep, I’m doing my late-night workout (#neverquit) and making my neural connections stronger, so that you can remember stuff the next day. The thing is, I work out better when you’re asleep. So, after an all-nighter, tests are like a cheat day — for you, not me.