Unlock Your Brain: How To Hack Your Full Brain Potential & Peak Performance

Dr Karolien Noebaert explores how the brain's amygdala and prefrontal cortex work as well as a strategy to hack the activation of these brain areas to reach full potential and become the best version of ourself.
Dr Karolien Notebaert is a neuroscientist and mindfulness expert.
learn how to hack your brain
Dr Karolien Notebaert is a neuroscientist and mindfulness expert.

How to hack your brain: The start of a journey

What most people don’t know about me is that at just 16 years old, I stepped into the world on my own — ready to face whatever came my way. Despite being young and inexperienced, a critical moment unfolded as I was about to leave home: my mother offered a piece of advice that would linger in my mind for years. She said, 

“I know you have a lot of potential. However, if you want to make it in life, make sure you use your potential so you can develop the best version of yourself.”

Back then, her words didn’t resonate much with me. Fast forward a decade, as I was immersing myself in neuroscience, her wise words came flooding back, sparking deep contemplation.

This insight began a journey that intertwined scientific exploration with self-discovery, focusing on a vital question: 

How can we unlock the full potential of our brains? 

More intriguingly, how can we “hack” our brains to tap into and enhance our inherent capabilities, transforming ourselves into our best versions?

Throughout this exploration, I’ve gained essential insights into this question and underwent a significant personal transformation. I’m excited to share these breakthrough findings with you, encouraging you to embark on your own personal and intellectual development path.

We’re pleased to share Dr Karolien Notebaert’s insightful learnings from her TEDx Talk “Hack your brain” on the Insight Timer Blog. Listen to the full track below:

  1. Talk: Hack Your Brain Dr. Karolien Notebaert 16:52

Key takeaways

  • Unleash your full potential by overcoming internal barriers like stress and anxiety. 
  • The amygdala’s overactivity triggers stress and fear, hindering your potential. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex is vital for achieving peak performance. It’s essential to find a balance between these brain regions.
  • Consistent mindfulness meditation can significantly decrease amygdala activity and boost prefrontal cortex abilities, improving mental functioning and reducing emotional and stress-related interference.
  • Effective mindfulness moves away from the brain’s default mode of perpetual internal dialogue to a state of direct sensory experience, quieting the mind, alleviating stress, and enhancing focus.
  • Other practices, like eating more brain-friendly foods, doing targeted cognitive exercises, and exploring transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) further enhance brain function and mental well-being.
  • Insight Timer offers a vast library of guided meditations, including those by Dr. Karolien Noebaert, to help you start or deepen their mindfulness practice. This is an invaluable tool for you, wherever you are on your journey. Start today to hack your brain and achieve peak performance.

What is brain hacking?

Brain hacking refers to enhancing the brain’s function and overall well-being through various methods, techniques, and tech. It’s a form of self-improvement that uses the brain’s ability to change — neuroplasticity — to optimize your cognitive abilities, emotional regulation, and mental resilience.

The concept isn’t new — for centuries, humans have sought ways to boost how the brain works, drawing from ancient traditions of meditation, herbal remedies, and physical exercises designed to sharpen your mind and expand consciousness. Today, we use the term brain hacking to describe a modern approach that combines these time-honored practices with cutting-edge scientific research and technology.

Why brain hack? 

The goal is to unlock our full potential, improving how we think, feel, and operate in daily life. Brain hacking addresses the desire for increased focus, creativity, memory, and mental clarity, offering strategies to overcome your brain’s limitations and achieve peak performance.

What limits brain performance?

Your brain’s performance is shaped by your potential — your talents, skills, and expertise — minus any internal interferences. Imagine you have a strong potential for singing, demonstrated by stellar performances in the shower. However, if suddenly asked to sing on stage, you might find your performance falters. 

Why? Despite having the potential, the sudden spotlight can trigger internal interferences like nervousness, anxiety, or negative thoughts — hindering your ability to use your potential fully. 

This example highlights how internal challenges can block our abilities, even when we have the skills to excel.

How to hack our brain effectively for more potential

Our brain’s efficiency often gets hindered by excessive activity in a specific area, the amygdala. Vital for our survival instincts, an overactive amygdala can lead to interference, curtailing our potential by triggering unnecessary stress responses.

On the flip side, unlocking our true potential involves enhancement of a different part of the brain: the prefrontal cortex. Positioned at the forefront of the brain, the prefrontal cortex works to execute high-level functions, such as planning, organizing, processing information, and problem-solving. It’s the command center for managing daily tasks and making thoughtful decisions.

But there’s a catch: the prefrontal cortex has its limits. Think of it as a battery. When fully charged, it powers us through tasks with peak mental performance. But as we drain this energy reserve with constant use, our cognitive abilities start to wane, affecting our productivity and mood. Understanding how to manage and recharge this “mental battery” is key to maintaining optimal brain function and realizing our full potential.

How the amygdala & prefrontal cortex work

The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are vital parts of our daily interactions.

The amygdala is a key region in the human brain that helps with emotional processing, including fear, anxiety, and the emotional aspects of memories. It’s constantly scanning for threats and preparing your body to respond. When you encounter something that might be threatening, your amygdala activates, triggering emotional and physical reactions.

The prefrontal cortex helps you think before you act, weighing the consequences of your actions.It also plays a role in dampening down the immediate, sometimes overblown, reactions of the amygdala. It’s like the rational voice that calms you down, helps you think clearly, and make reasoned decisions!

Navigating the daily dance between the Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex

Let’s consider a hypothetical, yet common, scenario. 

Visualize starting your day on little sleep, which means your prefrontal cortex—the brain’s planning and decision-making hub—isn’t fully powered. You face your first challenge when your stubborn two-year-old insists on wearing summer clothes on a chilly morning. Cortisol and adrenaline begin to surge. It takes half an hour of negotiation, powered by your already drained prefrontal cortex, to get her into warmer clothes.

As the day progresses, a traffic jam tests your patience and strategic thinking. By the time you return home, after a day of constant mental juggling and multitasking, your “mental battery” is nearly depleted, leaving the amygdala — your emotional response center — unchecked.

We use our prefrontal cortex like crazy. And after an extremely busy day, we come home and this is our mental state: our mental battery is empty and our amygdala is having free play.

This scenario is not unique to you. It unfolds in similar ways for your family members, including your children, whose smaller “mental batteries” run out faster — often leading to tantrums or fights as their way of expressing frustration.

The day’s climax might be stepping on a Lego brick with bare feet — a painful experience amplified by mental fatigue and heightened amygdala activity. Ironically, this moment could have been part of the day’s best memories, but instead, it becomes the tipping point of your endurance.

This story illustrates the delicate balance we navigate daily between our amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Recognizing this dance and finding ways to recharge our “mental battery” and manage our emotional responses can lead to better days, even amid the chaos. It’s a reminder that understanding our brain’s functions can allow us to gracefully navigate life’s challenges.

Read more: Do you know the feeling of a foggy and unfocused mind? Discover the causes for brain fog and different ways to get rid of it.

How to boost the prefrontal cortex for peak performance

In my journey as a scientist, I discovered a technique that can significantly reduce amygdala activity while enhancing the functionality of our prefrontal cortex, which is essential for achieving peak performance. 

With regular application, this method diminishes amygdala and overactive nervous system response and can shrink the amygdala size over time, effectively reducing internal disruptions. Scientific evidence supports this practice, highlighting various benefits, including:

  • enhanced creativity
  • improved cognitive and physical performance
  • sharper focus
  • better decision-making skills
  • improved well-being and health

The technique in question is mindfulness meditation (I like to call it M&M). 

Now, if you’re like me, initially skeptical, you might associate meditation with more esoteric practices. However, I can assure you that mindfulness meditation is rooted in solid scientific evidence, offering a practical approach to tapping into your brain’s full potential. 

So, the next time you enjoy some M&Ms, let them remind you of mindfulness meditation, a scientifically backed path to unlocking your brain’s capabilities.

Read more: Explore how and if you can catch up on sleep with meditation.

How to hack your brain: From default mode to direct experience

To fully enjoy the effects of mindfulness, practicing it properly is crucial. Have you ever noticed a relentless chatter in your mind, constantly dictating your actions and emotions? This internal monologue, often referred to as the “monkey mind,” is what scientists call the default mode network. It’s like the brain’s autopilot, constantly generating thoughts that can trigger our stress responses.

Mindfulness meditation shifts us away from this default chatter to a state known as the direct experience network. This is important because these two networks — the default mode and the direct experience — cannot be active simultaneously. 

By engaging in mindfulness, you effectively quiet the monkey mind, allowing for a shift in focus and a stress reduction. This practice is about moving from being lost in thought to directly engaging with the present moment, silencing the relentless commentary that can dominate our minds.

Use your senses to improve brain function

Activating your brain’s direct experience network can enhance brain function by tuning into your senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. Engaging fully with a sense draws your attention away from the constant mental chatter, known as the default mode network, and into the present moment, effectively quieting the mind.

Read more: Learn about the simple 54321 technique for grounding in the present moment and activating the direct experience network.

But what happens when the mind starts wandering again? It’s natural for thoughts to resurface, pulling your attention away. When this occurs, gently guide your focus back to your chosen sense. Returning your attention, despite distractions, strengthens your ability to remain present and engaged in the moment.

For those new to this practice, there are simple techniques to help ground you in the present.

  • Try grounding techniques, like the 54321 technique: This involves identifying things you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.
  • Start with guidance: Experts, like psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter, offer beginner-friendly strategies for managing thoughts during meditation, helping you to navigate the journey back to sensory awareness whenever your mind begins to wander.

Read more: Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter explains beginner-friendly strategies for what to do when thoughts arise during meditation.

The immediate power of mindfulness

Now that you understand why we might need mindfulness, let’s also experience it. 

I brought an exercise for you. It’s only 20 seconds. And all you have to lose is a bit of amygdala activation, which is a good thing. So we’re going to do it all together.

  1. Karolien practice Quick Mindfulness Practice 1:02

If you’re new to mindfulness, congratulations on completing your first session! Consistency is key to truly reaping the benefits. The following week, begin with five minutes of practice daily, gradually increasing to 10 minutes. 

Aiming for 10 to 15 minutes a day is a fantastic start.

Remember, mindfulness doesn’t just involve focusing on your hands; you can pay attention to any part of your body or even your breath. This practice is versatile and can be done almost anywhere — during a meeting where you’re not actively participating or instead of reaching for your phone in class.

The power of mindfulness lies in the fact that the default mode network and direct experience network cannot be activated simultaneously.

Did you enjoy this short mindfulness practice with Karolien? Start your mornings in a conscious way by listening to this guided morning meditation — explore Karolien’s complete library on Insight Timer.

  1. Morning Meditation: Starting Our Day In A Conscious Way Dr Karolien Notebaert 4:39

So what are some brain hacks you can use?

Enhancing your brain’s functionality and overall well-being is a powerful step towards achieving optimal mental health and cognitive performance. The Harvard Review of Psychiatry, acknowledges the power of mindfulness meditation to shape behavior, so let’s explore some other scientifically backed strategies for hacking your brain for better performance, emotional regulation, and resilience.

Boost your brain with Transcranial Electrical Stimulation (TES)

Have you heard of TES? It’s a way to boost your brain using a gentle electric current, like a tiny battery for your mind. You wear a special device that sends this electric buzz across your scalp to wake up certain parts of your brain. People use it to help them focus better, remember more, or even learn new things faster. It’s safe, and the worst most people feel is a little itchiness or a mild headache.

Like with any device, though, you must use it the right way. If you’re thinking about trying it out, talking to a doctor or a brain expert is a smart move to ensure it’s good for you and keeps you safe.

Explore cognitive training and the placebo effect

Did you know that just believing a mental workout will help your brain make it more effective? When you engage in cognitive training exercises — memory games, problem-solving tasks, or other mental workouts — if you really think these games will make your brain sharper, they might just do that! A study showed that people who believed they would get smarter from these exercises actually improved their smarts (their IQ went up by 5 to 10 points). 

So, when you sit down to train your brain, think positively and believe it will work. It might just give you that extra boost!

Eat brain food

According to research, to supercharge our brains, we should focus on foods that improve its function, such as:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, vital for cognitive function and brain health.
  • Flaxseeds and walnuts, acting as brain fuel to enhance memory and overall brain health.
  • Leafy greens like spinach, rich in vitamins to protect brain cells and sharpen cognition.
  • Berries and turmeric, powerful antioxidants that protect the brain and support memory.
  • Eggs and soy products, which contain choline, are crucial for brain development and functioning.

These foods nourish your body and enhance your brain’s performance, keeping it healthy and agile.

Hack your brain with mindfulness

Reflecting on my mother’s advice from two decades ago to “unlock the potential in your brain and develop the best version of yourself,” I’ve discovered mindfulness meditation as a powerful tool for achieving high performance. It offers a unique way to enhance our brains, allowing us to reach our fullest potential. 

This practice isn’t just beneficial for individuals; it extends to families, teams, and entire companies, encouraging us to go beyond our current limits. Through mindfulness, we have the opportunity to not only improve ourselves but also to foster a better humanity. Sharing this insight feels like sharing a key to unlocking untapped potential, a concept I believe is truly worth considering.

You want to hack your brain even more and become the truest expression of who you really are? Sign up for Karolien’s popular 30-day course “Unlock Your Wise & Mindful Brain,” which will teach you the neuroscience behind performance and unlocking your unique potential through regulating internal blockages.

Learn more and start the course for free by clicking on the banner below:

How to hack your brain for peak performance

Brain hacking FAQs

Is neurohacking a real thing?

Neurohacking is a real activity that helps to improve brain function for better performance or health. It’s part of a bigger trend of folks using brain stimulation at home, starting around 2011, by either making their own gadgets or buying them. 

Neurohacking encompasses several strategies beyond mindfulness, such as consuming nootropics to enhance cognitive function and tailoring your diet and exercise to optimize brain health.

Neurohacking is about exploring and experimenting beyond traditional settings like labs or clinics to unlock new ways to enhance how we think, feel, and live. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to boost your brain. Neurohacking isn’t just about curiosity; it’s about actively seeking ways to tap into the brain’s potential using a mix of science, technology, and self-experimentation.

What are the methods of neurohacking?

Neurohacking includes using do-it-yourself (DIY) brain stimulation devices, which you might build or buy, to apply low levels of electricity to your head. Besides electrical stimulation, neurohacking encompasses taking nootropics—supplements designed to boost cognitive abilities. 

Neurohacking also explores changes in diet and exercise specifically aimed at optimizing brain function. Moreover, neurohacking is closely tied to the broader practices of self-tracking and biohacking, where you experiment with and monitor various aspects of your biology and daily routines to improve mental and physical performance.

How does dopamine tie into having a growth mindset that will help you maximize your success?

Dopamine plays a crucial role in connecting your growth mindset to maximizing success. When you embrace a growth mindset, believing that intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence, it triggers intrinsic motivation. This internal drive doesn’t need external rewards to keep you going. Instead, you find satisfaction in the learning process itself. 

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain’s reward system, reinforces this cycle. It boosts your attention and engagement, making learning and tackling challenges more rewarding. Essentially, dopamine acts as a natural enhancer for your motivation and focus, making the journey of growth and improvement inherently satisfying and productive.

How can neuroscience help you overcome change resistance?

Do you fear change? Neuroscience can help overcome change resistance by understanding and regulating your brain’s response to fear and stress. Techniques like mindfulness meditation can reduce activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers anxiety and resistance to change. 

By boosting the prefrontal cortex through practices that enhance focus and decision-making, you can better manage your emotions and adapt to new situations, making change less daunting.

How do you hack your brain?

Hacking your brain involves practices that enhance its functionality and well-being. Mindfulness meditation is a key strategy; it reduces amygdala activation, which is responsible for stress and fear, while boosting the prefrontal cortex, crucial for executive functions. Regular practice can physically shrink your amygdala, reducing internal interferences and unlocking potential.

What are the best brain hacking techniques to improve memory?

Key techniques include mindfulness meditation, which boosts focus and alleviates stress, facilitating more efficient information processing and retention by the brain. Nutrition rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins supports brain health and memory. Cognitive training exercises that challenge the brain can also improve memory by strengthening neural connections.

Can brain hacking techniques improve memory and focus?

Yes, brain hacking techniques can improve memory and focus. Mindfulness meditation can directly impact your brain’s function, leading to better cognitive performance and physical health. Mindfulness helps to quiet the constant internal chatter, allowing for greater concentration and memory retention. Nutritional changes and cognitive training further support these improvements.

What are the potential risks of brain hacking techniques?

While many brain hacking techniques offer benefits, there are potential risks, especially with transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) methods. TES can cause discomfort, headaches, or skin irritation if not used correctly. Misusing nootropics or supplements could lead to adverse health effects. It’s important to approach brain hacking cautiously, ideally under professional guidance, to avoid these risks.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be considered as medical advice. If you have concerns about anxiety or any other conditions mentioned in this article, please seek a medical professional for help.


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