We live in an age that's gushing with information and dizzying possibilities. You can almost feel your brain cells crackling to keep up with the choices—trivial and profound—that confront us at every turn: picking a cell-phone plan or an on-demand movie, selecting the best mix of investments in a 401(k) or the right health plan or just knowing which eggs to buy at the supermarket. (Cage free? Organic? Omega-3 enriched?) Surely there has never been a greater need to stay alert and informed, to act shrewdly and remain focused.
Luckily, we also live in an era in which research is showing us how to nurture and maintain our mental faculties—from infancy through the golden years—and how to deter what was once seen as an inevitable decline. Some new findings confirm what we have always suspected: Grandma was right—fish really is brain food; a steaming cup of joe actually does turbocharge our mental acuity; getting less than eight hours of sleep seriously compromises our ability to concentrate and solve problems.
But some findings are unexpected, even counterintuitive. Creativity, for instance, rarely strikes in a flash but more typically results from steady cogitation. Multitasking, for all its seeming efficiency, can exact a heavy toll on the quality of our output. Daily meditation physically transforms the cerebral cortex. Physical exercise may be as important as mental gymnastics in keeping Alzheimer's disease at bay. Baby Einstein-type videos make a poor substitute for human interaction in stimulating a tender young mind. And perhaps the most unexpected and comforting, recent research confirms that the human brain retains an astonishing degree of plasticity and capacity for learning throughout life. In some respects, our mental performance, despite a few glitches with short-term memory, doesn't peak until midlife, when the white matter in the loftiest parts of the brain is thickest.
In the following pages, TIME offers a wealth of new discoveries and practical information to guide you in the care and maintenance of your mental faculties. Pay careful attention. Don't get distracted. But don't stress too much either; relaxation is a balm for the overtaxed brain.