Whether you're testing for mid-terms, final exams, SATs, or the Bar Exam, your academic standing and even your future career may depend on how well you do. Exams place tremendous demands on a variety of cognitive functions. In this guide, we discuss how the best brain-boosting nootropics for exams could help you ace your tests with less stress and more finesse.
How Exams Affect the Brain
Because there are so many different kinds of exams and so many academic subjects, we should first look at what exams do to the brain in order to understand how the brain works during an exam.
In most disciplines, students are expected to learn specific areas of knowledge related to a single topic. Research suggests that taking exams deepens this learning.<1> Mentally searching through memory banks for relevant information strengthens neural pathways, making the information easier and quicker to retrieve later. Which is why “practice makes perfect."
Rather than just memorizing facts and figures and robotically repeating them, students learn best by creating relevant questions and testing themselves. This triggers the brain’s seek-and-find mechanism while coalescing the information for a pertinent – and more memorable – answer.<2>
How the Brain Works During an Exam
The brain operates mainly on three Cognitive Levels during an academic exam.
- Recall is a measure of memory effectiveness. In test-taking, it helps us remember things like word or phrase definitions and scientific, logical or historical facts. It allows us to recall specific methods and procedures, and to understand concepts, theories, and principles.
- Application helps us interpret learned information. With application, we can connect separate pieces of data and apply theories, principles, and theoretical laws to situational questions. We use application to solve math equations, interpret periodical charts, and translate economic graphs.
- Analysis puts application and recall together for problem solving. Using analysis, we can critically analyze a case scenario or report. We can plan, identify problem areas, and compare outcomes. Our brains use analysis for the most complicated exam subjects.
Executive functions are a collection of cognitive processes that make it possible to play with different ideas, think before acting, adapt to unfamiliar situations, resist temptation, and stay focused.
- Executive functions control inhibition, interference control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.
Executive functions allow you to ignore distractions so you can concentrate on your exam. They also help you organize your notes for open book exams and use memorized facts and learned concepts to answer word problems, essay portions, and constructed response questions.
The frontal lobe is one of the most active parts of the brain, and it processes core executive functions. We use it anytime we make decisions, including which test answer is correct.
The frontal lobe is critical for executive functions, which include:
- Inhibition – gives us self-control so we can ignore potential distractions like background noise
- Interference control – allows us to focus our attention on the exam
- Cognitive flexibility – helps us think creatively so we can find out when the tub is half full if the amount of water flowing into a tub doubles every minute and the tub is full in an hour.
Core executive functions can combine to activate higher order executive functions like cognitive fluidity, which help us implement the planning, reasoning, and problem solving skills needed to ace exams.
Nootropics for fluid intelligence may be useful during test-taking
Fluid intelligence gives us the ability to see patterns and relationships between different sets of information or objects. In turn, pattern recognition helps us with problem solving and reasoning.<3>
- We use fluid intelligence to answer most questions beyond those in True/False or multiple choice format.
Working memory is another executive function that’s crucial to successfully completing an exam. While it does activate the frontal lobe, it operates more from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Working memory helps us learn, store, and remember information. And, it enables us to understand information and apply it in real life.<4>
- Working memory is responsible for what we call knowledge – when mere information morphs into deeper understanding of a subject or idea.
Anytime you do math equations in your head, organize your notes, follow instructions, or extrapolate upon a theory, artwork, or philosophy, you’re using working memory.
Without working memory, we could not use conceptual knowledge in order to make informed choices in the present. Basically, without working memory, you’d just be playing pin the tail on the donkey with your exam.
The monstrous mind blank. Most of us have probably experienced it at some point while taking a test. You study for the exam and think, “No problem, I’ve got this.”
Then the instructor starts the timer.
You’re off to a merry start when Bleep! Half of what you learned is just… gone. You wrack your brain, but the harder you think, the worse it feels. What gives?
Blame it on a trifecta within the brain - the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
When you study, you are practicing cold cognition. This type of thinking applies to relatively stable situations where there’s really no risk and everything is pretty copacetic.
So when you’re studying comfortably at home, maybe listening to some mellow music, having some tea or whatever, the hypothalamus slows the release of stress hormones, while the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are chilling out just doing their job learning and remembering things.
But when you sit down to take an important exam that your future might rely on, you enter the high-stakes realm of hot cognition. Suddenly, the brain perceives the exam as a threat.
Hot cognition is an emotionally-driven, decision-making arena where the risks are high and there’s a lot to lose. The hypothalamus goes on high alert. Stress hormone norepinephrine starts to flow, dampening neural firing in the prefrontal cortex. Cortisol courses into the hippocampus, disrupting neural connections.
Basically, taking an important exam can trigger a stress response that wipes out working memory, stalls recall mechanisms and revs up emotionally-driven hot cognition. And that's a formula for the disastrous mind blank.<5>
Luckily, there are some things you can do to prevent mind blanks during exam season.
- Learn some de-stressing techniques and practice them. Deep breathing, meditation, positive visualization, or anything else that helps you relax can help your brain refrain from perceiving an exam as a threat.
- Make sure you’re prepared. Get some good sleep, study effectively, and really get into the subject at hand. Learn about nootropics for studying.
- Try boosting feel-good chemicals in your brain that can counteract stressful situations with nootropics for exams.
A good memory is essential for exam success. But even the best memories can fail under super stressful situations. The character Sherlock Holmes used a mental trick called the 'Mind Palace' to access hidden memories under stressful conditions. More than 2,000 years ago the ancient Romans and Greeks named it the method of loci. It's a visual mnemonic filing system that can help you remember information under pressure. Try it and see how it can help improve your memory all year long.
It can be hard to stay focused during extended exam sessions. Getting a good night's sleep and staying hydrated can help you concentrate better. Since sitting for long periods can reduce blood oxygen to the brain, taking breaks to walk around will get the cerebral blood flowing. To limit distractions, turn off your phone and close all extraneous browser tabs during online tests.
Logic-heavy subjects like science, tech, engineering, and math require special proficiency in higher-order cognitive skills like critical thinking. Exams that reinforce in-class cognitive practice through cognitively challenging exam questions allow students to improve executive function.<6>
Exams are stressful, and stress can lower cognitive function. Stress hits the prefrontal cortex first, knocking down executive functions. When EFs fall, so do test results.
Interestingly, the amount of stress students feel during an exam is apparently linked to abstract reasoning ability (ARA). Students with high ARA feel less stress during exams, while those with low ARA were more prone to anxiety and anger.<7>
Nootropics for exams can help reduce feelings of anxiety and protect your prefrontal cortex.
Endurance is required for optimum performance during long exams after all night crams. Mid-terms and finals are grueling enough, but there are some seemingly interminable exams out there. Aspiring doctors can expect to spend upwards of eight hours straight (with a few short breaks) sitting for the MCAT.
Whether you have one long exam or a series of shorter ones, maintaining endurance will improve concentration, memory, and confidence during extended exams.
Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics for Exams
Mind Lab Pro®'s Bacopa contains 9 active bacosides that may bolster memory and speed up visual information processing. Research suggests Bacopa could be particularly helpful for memory retention by "decreasing the rate of forgetting newly acquired information."<8>
And Bacopa can help with stress by promoting serotonin, acetylcholine and GABA in the brain - calming neurotransmitters that reduce neuronal excitability and boost mood - so you can stay cool during tough exams.
Rhodiola is prized for its ability to promote peak mental performance under pressure. Rhosiola Rosea can sharpen memory and concentration, increase motivation and reduce fatigue to increase mental performance during drawn-out exam sessions.
Plus, Rhodiola can help reduce stress and general anxiety by lowering cortisol and nitric oxide levels in the HPA-system.<9>
L-Theanine is a relaxing amino acid primarily found in green tea. It induces alpha brainwaves, generating a peaceful state of wakeful relaxation that may help with test-taking anxiety and jitters. L-Theanine also promotes memory and can help maintain focus and brain power during lengthy exams.
N-Acetyl L-Theanine (NALT)
NALT is a stress-reducing amino acid that enhances cognitive function under pressure. It encourages the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which can become depleted with lack of sleep combined with stressful situations. NALT can support cognition under stress and help you ace your test after all-night cram study sessions.
Phosphatidylserine is a lipid that helps to form brain cell membranes, supporting the flexible, fluid structure that maintains healthy brain function. While PS has traditionally been used to help elderly individuals with mental clarity, in 2018 it is emerging as a performance-enhancing nootropic, especially in stack supplements.
PS can do many positive things for the brain, but two benefits in particular may be most intriguing to students preparing for exams:
- PS can help reduce over-the-top responses to stress, such as what anxious students may feel when sitting down for a big exam.
- PS has been shown to support both short-term and long-term memory, optimizing the most important tools you have for exam success.
Mind Lab Pro® nootropics for exams support stellar performance: Memory, focus, problem solving, and more.
You don't have to be a genius to ace your exams. You don't have to resort to so-called smart drugs either, as these intense stimulants may not be the best for long-range brain health. With a premium natural brain-boosting stack like Mind Lab Pro®, you may unlock your true test-taking cognitive potential and rise to the top of your class -- becoming a star academic performer while nourishing your brain.
- Butler AC, Roediger HL. Testing improves long-term retention in a simulated classroom setting. Journal European Journal of Cognitive Psychology. Volume 19, 2007 - Issue 4-5: Bridging Cognitive Science and Education: Learning, Memory, and Metacognition. doi: 10.1080/09541440701326097.
- Hartwig MK, Dunlosky J. Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychon Bull Rev (2012) 19: 126. doi: 10.3758/s13423-011-0181-y
- Smith EE, Jonides J. Storage and executive processes in the frontal lobes. Science. 1999 Mar 12;283(5408):1657-61.
- Arnsten A, Mazure CM, Sinha R. Neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control are highly vulnerable to even mild stress. When they shut down, primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in. Scientific American. 2012 Apr; 306(4): 48–53. PMCID: PMC4774859.
- McDaniel MA, Thomas RC, Agarwal PK, McDermott KB, Roediger HL. Quizzing in middle-school science: successful transfer performance on classroom exams. Appl Cognit Psychol. 2013;27:360–372.
- Stranger-Hall KF. Multiple-choice exams: an obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2012 Fall;11(3):294-306. doi: 10.1187/cbe.11-11-0100.
- Goetz T, et al. Emotional experiences during test taking: Does cognitive ability make a difference? Learning and Individual Differences. 2007. 17, pp. 3-16.
- Roodenrys S, et al. Chronic effects of Brahmi (Bacopa Monnieri) on human memory. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2002 Aug;27(2):279-81.
- Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 2009 Feb;75(2):105-12. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1088346.
- Owen GN, Parnell H, De Bruin EA, Rycroft JA. The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood. Nutr Neurosci. 2008 Aug;11(4):193-8. doi: 10.1179/147683008X301513.