Think Like Batman – A Training Program for Your BRAIN

By on March 1, 2019

If you’ve just come from the video and don’t want to read the full post, you can scroll right down to the bottom to get to the training program. But I recommend reading on – as I cover several extra things here that I didn’t get time to look at there.

In a recent post, I looked at a training program for the average Joe looking to become more like Batman. More Batman-esque. More Batmany. We scaled it back, but the aim was to train for all-round, functional strength and endurance.

Think like batman

But we all know that physical strength is only part of the story when it comes to Batman. Batman is a super-genius, the world’s greatest detective, and pretty much an expert in everything.

So, let’s ask a new question: what kind of training program would we need to develop in order to gain Batman-like intellect and cognitive abilities? If you’re not willing to live in a cave and dedicate your life to training and fighting crime, what’s the closest approximation you could actually stick to?

And this is something that has particular interest for me. Because I have always thought that a ‘training program’ for optimum health and performance – for general physical preparedness – should not just focus on the body. Why don’t people write scheduled routines for training their brains in just the same way they might have a biceps day?

Programming, hacking, batman

That’s what we’re going to attempt to design over the course of this mega-post. And at the same time, we’ll explore what types of brain training actually work, and look at some interesting methods you may not have heard from.

Meditation

The obvious place to start is with meditation. Meditation helps to increase calmness and focus, but numerous studies also show that it is able to increase grey cortical thickness, brain plasticity, and more (study). This is a total brain upgrade with no catch, and the best part is that it actually enhances recovery from other forms of training.

There are many different forms of meditation, from mindfulness, to kundalini, to transcendental, to religious. While they might all seem very varied though, the truth is that they all essentially boil down to one thing – actively choosing what you want to focus your attention on, and then holding it there. This can be a candle flame, a mantra, your own body, a passage of text… or on ‘nothingness’.

Meditation and Body Language

With practice, you then gain the ability to choose to rise above distractions and distracting thoughts, thereby employing 100% of your cognitive faculties on the task at hand.

And this is closely related to concepts from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which is all about observing the contents of your own mind and then taking control of them.

Throughout his podcasts interviewing some of the world’s top performers, Tim Ferriss observed that almost all of them practised some form of meditation. More often than not, this took place early in the day as part of a ‘morning routine’. That’s as good a time as any, so that’s the first thing we’re going to introduce into our program – a short period of meditation.

The danger here is that you will start out with good intentions and then abandon your meditation practice early on. So, to avoid this start with just a few minutes – literally three is fine to start – and set yourself a timer. Using guided mindfulness sessions can also help – Headspace has some free ones to get you started – or you might find that watching a flame can help. Do what works for you and then build up to more time as you get better at it.

Batman meditation

Cognitive Processing Speed and Working Memory

The next place to look is to brain training programs – can you really enhance your memory and problem solving by doing daily challenges?

While it’s true that most brain training programs are not backed by research, one systematic review of brain training games found that two brands actually did work: those being BrainHQ and CogniFit.

The key to success in these games was that they focussed on cognitive processing speed, working memory, and the principle of neuroplasticity. If you’ve watched this channel before, you’ll know that neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to grow and change shape in response to experience. This occurs through the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis), and the creation and strengthening of the connections between those nodes.

Neurons brain plasticity

BrainHQ and CogniFit apparently do a good job because they remain just at the cusp of what is possible. The games are hard enough to present a challenge (thus making them more engaging) but not so hard as to be impossible – meaning you don’t give up. This is also believed to keep you in a state of flow.

But they are also key because they focus on broad skills that can be more broadly beneficial. Examples of successful brain training tools include those that require you to quickly identify the odd one out in an image, or to state what type of image flashed up in your peripheral vision for a split second. The tests would then get gradually harder by presenting more stimuli and keeping it visible for shorter periods of time.

Cognitive processing speed is the ability to respond to stimuli, make quick decisions, and quickly switch tasks. Pretty useful if you’re Batman right?

Batman cognitive processing speed

But you actually don’t need to use the program in order to get these benefits. What if instead, you simply play the old alphabet drinking game? Pick a category – let’s say names – and then try to come up with names beginning with each letter as quickly as possible. Better yet, find a way to use stimuli from your environment to trigger the processing. Perhaps your job is to quickly find something in your vision beginning with a certain letter (I spy something beginning with F), or to pick and object at random and then find another that matches in some way (same letter, same size, same category).

The other type of cognitive skill that can be effectively trained is working memory – the ability to hold onto short pieces of information such as a phone number of the relative positions of your squad for a period of time – which is famously accomplished through dual n-back training. This type of training requires you to identify matching pairs of numbers/letters/shapes while listening to a list. You have to say when a repetition occurs within a set number of spaces (n), thereby forcing you to pay attention to each item on the list and remember the one you’re looking out for. It is ‘dual’ because you’ll be watching two different sequences simultaneously. Dual N-back has been demonstrated to be effective in many studies. And as we’ve discussed, this might actually be able to improve your ability to visualize and hold a representation of the world around you – even allowing you to plan multiple next moves in a game of chess – so it is much more of a cognitive upgrade than you may at first think. You can download dual n-back apps for free for Android and iOS.

Batman brain training

And yes, playing chess will also do the same thing.

Computer Games

You could also use another type of ‘brain training game’ – actual computer games!

Computer games – and first person shooting games in particular – have been shown to improve everything from spatial awareness and visual acuity, to reaction times and decision making (study). In short, the practice of scanning for bogeys on the horizon, then prioritizing targets, taking aim, and reacting – all within a split second – is fantastic for your cognitive processing speed. This is why the military actually uses gaming tournaments to recruit people to man drones.

virtual reality brain training

The difference between this and playing a game of matching pairs online, is that you are using more of your senses, you are under pressure, and the activity is infinitely more varied. Doing the precise same thing in VR would take this to the next level, by allowing you to use 360 peripheral vision, spatial audio, and more. You’ll also be far more immersed in the training, thereby increasing attention and focus. In the future, I’m really hoping this will be explored further.

Of course some of you might also have noted that you would get many of the exact same benefits from sports – which likewise require extreme focus, awareness of your surroundings, decision making, reflexes, and more.

Mental Simulation

But again: you don’t actually need to play a game that involves decision making in order to practice decision making – you just need to make decisions. The well-documented issue with the vast majority of brain training programs is that they don’t actually translate to real-world abilities. Instead, they simply train your ability to play those games.

Brain training program

The best way to enhance your brain in a given domain, is to challenge it in that capacity regularly. Want to be an amazing negotiator? A brain training program won’t do it. But taking a job where you are negotiating under pressure every day will.

Take a job where you need to make snap decisions under pressure, and you will become excellent at doing just that.

The next best thing? Make arbitrary decisions under time pressure. For instance – try rapping and coming up with rhyming lyrics. This is extremely difficult but teaches decision making, focus, creativity, forward planning, and verbal fluency – and it’s free.

This same mental practice can be used to improve a wide range of skills. In a recent video on reading body language, I explained that knowing the theory behind body language is useless unless you practice actually using it in the real world. I suggested that to get better at doing this, you should spend a little regular time – just five minutes on the way to work for example – observing your surroundings and drawing conclusions as to what people are doing and thinking.

Inspiration Walk

Here you are training a particular mental skill by just using that skill. And there are many mental skills we can practice without the need to change our situation.

And this is what I mean by ‘mental drills’. A similar one is just to practice being more observant – go for a walk and make an effort to see as much as possible. Perhaps engage your peripheral vision by using wide-angle vision – that means relaxing your eyes so as to take in more information, though with less detail. Check out this post for more on that.

To improve your ‘prospective memory’ and mindfulness – to get better at remembering to ‘do something later’ – you can simply challenge yourself to remember to do some things during the day. For instance, try and count the number of times you sit down and get back up. You’ll be amazed at how hard this is at first.

Batman memory

To get better at retrieving memories, practice trying to visualize old spaces you use to visit, or practice mentally navigating your area. What did your old math class room look like? You can also do this with more recent memories – close your eyes and picture right now what is in the room. This will also test your observation skills and working memory.

More Mental Exercises

There are also some other forms of mental exercise/meditation that straddle the line between regular meditation and this practiced focus.

One is ‘Productive Meditation’, which is a concept suggested by Cal Newport in the book ‘Deep Work’. The idea is that you focus on a problem, or a creative endeavour and just think deeply on that subject – often while on an ‘inspiration walk’ (walking being highly conducive to creativity, especially in a naturally beautiful environment). Ideally, I recommend thinking about your own projects (more on that in a moment) but also trying out ‘thought experiments’. Thought experiments are hypothetical problems that you challenge yourself to solve, which could be anything from ‘if I had to write the next Bond novel, what would happen?’ to ‘how could I take over the world?’.

Batman thinking

If you want to practice your Batman problem-solving skills, then you could imagine how you might break into a property without being detected, or take down a group of people. There’s no need to do anything violent, just allow your brain to run simulations.

The aim is just to stretch your creative thinking and to engage in ‘big idea thinking’, which has been shown to drastically increase cognition. Check my video on Thinking Like Tony Stark for more on that.

Another type of meditation I recommend is ‘Image Streaming’. I talked about this in a video before, but the basic concept is to focus on the imagery that comes to your mind’s eye when you close your eyes and to describe it out loud. Don’t force images to mind, just let them arrive and describe what you’re seeing. This might help to boost your visualization skills, helping to improve your visual memory, navigation, and more.

Brain training apps

The take-home here is that in order to train your brain, all you really need is your brain.

Experience

While all this works in theory though, playing a computer game or daydreaming, and making a life-or-death decision are two very different things. No amount of simulation can match the stakes or the complexity of the real thing.

Which is why in order to train particular cognitive skills, you really need to practice those skills for real. The best way to get better at negotiation is to take up a job that requires you to haggle on the phone every single day. The best way to get better at navigating, is to drop yourself in the woods with no supplies.

Brain training ball

Research shows that the top tier Olympic Athletes and Special Operations personnel are the ones who manage to maintain a state of calm arousal. They have a stronger sympathetic response – meaning that they have elevated focus and heartrate – but they do so without succumbing to pressure, exhibiting what is known as a metronomic heartrate. They also manage to maintain greater levels of calm during rest (study, study)

One explanation for this, is that their brains produce greater amounts of neuropeptide Y and DHEA. DHEA manages to buffer the effects of cortisol on the hippocampus, allowing better access to memories and spatial awareness during stress. Likewise, NPY helps to reduce the negative effects of norepinephrine.

Meditation practice can enhance production of neuropeptide Y (study), DHEA, and others – helping you to maintain calm and a state of flow. Practitioners gain the ability to rise above their physiological response and focus on the inputs that matter.

But to get to this point, military training involves subjection to harsh extremes – intended to emulate the harsh environments they’ll be training in. They have to make decisions in the cold (which stimulates a stress response in itself), with a sergeant shouting down their neck.

I’m not suggesting you do this. However, I am suggesting that in order to perform your best mentally, you need to subject yourself to a little positive stress – just as you do in the gym. That might mean getting out of your comfort zone. Try performing these practices in a loud environment for instance, or try doing them in a crowded space where you will feel social pressure. Get your heartrate elevated and then try to focus on body language, thereby testing your ability to direct your own attention, and helping you to become more immune to stress.

 

Apart from anything else, overcoming overwhelming social pressure is a powerful skill in itself that will make you formidable in your career.

Learning

One of the most notable aspects of Batman’s depiction is the huge number of skills and abilities he possesses, from lockpicking, to engineering, to hacking, to speed reading.

In general, learning new skills is one of the best ways to advance your career, expand your mind, AND keep your brain sharp. With so many learning tools available to us today, there’s nothing stopping us from becoming ‘digital polymaths’. In fact, learning new things increases the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), thereby making it easier to learn more new things. It also increases dopamine, making you generally more mentally focussed and alert.

Ever wondered why babies and young children can pick up new languages and the like so quickly? Partly, this is down to the lack of established neural pathways and patterns. However, it is also down to the fact that they are learning so much about the world around them. Thus their brains are swimming in learning chemicals.

Learning

And of course, it adds to our roster of skills – just like Bruce Wayne.

If you want to be the best version of yourself, and if you want to develop your mental skills, then you should always be learning. You can do this passively even. I have signed up to a few online classes that can benefit my business, and I use a small earbud in one ear to listen to those classes while rocking my daughter to sleep, cooking, or even working out.

Speaking of which, physical training – and particularly training unusual movement patterns – is also known to greatly increase neuroplasticity.

Choosing what skills to learn is entirely up to you. Of course, if you want to be ‘Batman esque’ then you might choose specific skills like hacking, programming, engineering, lock picking, body language, martial arts, languages, and more.

Better though, is to identify what matters to you in your life and to develop the skills that will lead you there. Remember, Batman’s real superpower is his dedication, his commitment, and his insane training. If you’re going to improve, then you need to know what it is that will keep you driven. And you need to

Create side projects and goals, and this can help to crystalize and contextualize your training. Apart from anything else, having a project is one of the most powerful ways to structure and motivate your learning. And remember: it needs to be engaging if it’s going to stimulate the right neurochemicals.

Our aim is not really to be Batman, but rather to apply his mental discipline to our own goals and priorities.

Metacognitive Strategies

A metacognitive strategy can be thought of as a way of ‘thinking about thinking’. Using your brain to make your own brain better. This is what this post has been all about.

It’s important to be aware of how you are using your brain at any given time. I haven’t gone into memory master techniques in this post because that will be a huge topic. But suffice to say that you can use mental tools in order to improve the way you approach problems and challenges.

Metacognitive strategies

Ask yourself: were you as focussed as you could have been? Are you approaching this problem in the best way?

Are the thoughts running through your head helpful or distracting?

Are you trying your very best at whatever you’re doing?

I made a video and post on a subject called cognitive behavioural therapy which is all about this concept. Learn to reflect on your own thought process – that is the key to unlocking greater mental skills.

And when engaging in any activity, just remember that you can make it more challenging simply by trying harder. Focus and try and do the job as quickly and as well as possible. That way you make it challenging enough to tax your mental resources. Anything can be training.

Grant gave me a great tip for getting faster with my punches, which was simply to practice punching faster. It sounds obvious, but it’s something that you often don’t think about when hitting the bag. Simply by changing your intent, you can drastically increase the effectiveness of your training.

Punch faster

Interestingly, if I’m performing poorly in a computer game, I find I often have to remind myself to ‘really focus and be patient’ at which point I immediately improve.

The same goes for playing sports, or computer games, or just being aware of your surroundings. Challenge yourself to do it better, and use more of your brain in the process.

You can even try practicing ‘mindful ironing’, where you focus 100% on a mundane task (in this case ironing) and use it as a form of meditation.

This is all very closely linked to CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy – which teaches us to consider the contents of our thoughts in order to become happier, more focussed, and more effective. If you’re anxious when talking with people for instance, you might ask why that is.

Brain Maintenance

The final piece of the puzzle is to make sure you are looking after your brain and giving it the best chance to grow and sharpen.

Nootropic stack

To do this, you can use a combination of exercise (particularly using novel movements) which has been shown to encourage plasticity, sleep, and nutrition. You can also use a few nootropics – which when used correctly should essentially just be nutrients that have been chosen to help enhance long term brain health. Examples include omega 3 fatty acid (to increase myelination, decrease inflammation, improve cell membrane permeability, and even enhance DHEA production), choline inositol (to increase the density of receptors to help you more easily switch between mental states), creatine (for more brain energy), magnesium threonate (for better and more plastic sleep) etc.

Conclusion: The Program

The techniques we’ve looked at throughout the course of this post combine a few things to hopefully great effect. Meditation and similar practices enhance our focus and concentration, allowing us to be less stressed, and more responsive to our surroundings. We’re practicing observation and reading body language, we’re honing our senses. Dual N-back, computer games, and image streaming should bolster working memory and high-pressure problem solving, as should challenging ourselves in our waking lives. Consistent learning, side projects, and productive meditation should increase plasticity, add to our skill set, and help with our creative problem solving. And to support all this, we’re eating the best diet, using nootropics, and ensuring to get plenty of sleep and exercise.

A Complete Brain Training Program

So, an ideal program based around these ideas might look like so:

Monday

10 minutes morning meditation (mindfulness/transcendental)
10 minutes productive meditation/inspiration walk
5 minutes dual n-back training/chess/mental arithmetic

Tuesday

10 minutes image streaming
30 minutes learning/project work

Wednesday

10 minutes left-handed creative writing
5 minutes rapid decision making (hypothetical problem solving/creative challenge like rapping)

Thursday

10 minutes focussing on senses
30 minutes computer game/sports/challenging scenarios

Friday

20 minutes creativity/project work

Saturday

15 minutes focussing on surroundings
10 minutes ball catching

Sunday

30 minutes learning
20 minutes project work

Conversely, if you wanted to pack as much as possible into a single day – a ‘brain day’ to go along with your leg day and biceps day, then it might look like so:

10 minutes mindfulness meditation
5 minutes focussing on senses/surroundings
5 minutes image streaming
10 minutes productive
5 minutes dual n-back/chess
30 minutes of learning/creative work

Combine this with some kind of sports or first-person computer game/VR during the week, along with a challenging and rewarding job/hobby, and you should see your brain continue to improve and develop.

Of course, the right training for you and how best to structure it is going to depend very much on your own goals and lifestyle. Hopefully, this huge post has given you enough ideas to come up with your own program and to adapt it to your liking.

But if you only take one thing away from all of this, let it be that you can and should train your brain just like a muscle – and that the only ‘tool’ you need to do this effectively, is your brain itself.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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