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4 Essential (and Overlooked) Facts About Your Brain and Your Mind

NeuronsAn aspir­ing clar­inetist begins by get­ting a sense of the way the instrument’s sounds are pro­duced by the air she blows through it. A dri­ver must be acquaint­ed with var­i­ous vehi­cle fun­da­men­tals, such as adding gas, accel­er­at­ing, and read­ing the speedome­ter. It is no dif­fer­ent with the brain. Max­i­miz­ing your brain’s health and per­for­mance begins with a basic under­stand­ing of how it works and how it evolves across the lifes­pan.

The human brain evolved to help us oper­ate in com­plex, chang­ing envi­ron­ments by con­tin­u­al­ly learn­ing and adapt­ing. Suc­cess­ful­ly doing so involves a vari­ety of brain func­tions and abil­i­ties, includ­ing var­i­ous types of mem­o­ry, lan­guage, emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, atten­tion, and plan­ning. While these func­tions are often car­ried out by dis­tinct neur­al net­works, they are fun­da­men­tal­ly inter­de­pen­dent and thriv­ing in the envi­ron­ment we face each day depends on the func­tion­al­i­ty of all these brain func­tions, whether cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al, or exec­u­tive.

For exam­ple, imag­ine that you are dis­cussing an ambi­tious new project with a client. The sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult, both because the impor­tance of the deal for your career means you are anx­ious to close it to your advan­tage, and because the client is being quite con­de­scend­ing. The pres­sure to suc­ceed and the need to refrain from get­ting angry make it hard for you to “stay cool” and think straight. This turns out to be a good illus­tra­tion of the ways that we depend on “emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion”, and demon­strates the fact that emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive func­tions are tight­ly inter­con­nect­ed.

Brain func­tions are not fixed at birth or after child­hood, as our brains con­stant­ly change over a life­time: over the short term in response to our dai­ly thoughts, sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and actions, as well as over the long term, as we con­tin­ue grow­ing wis­er – and old­er. The good news is that we are not rel­e­gat­ed to pas­sive­ly watch­ing these changes occur. Our brains respond to basic lifestyle fac­tors that we have a large degree of con­trol over, and neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty (the brain’s life­long capac­i­ty to change and rewire itself in response to stim­u­la­tion and expe­ri­ence) is at the core of the abil­i­ty to active­ly improve spe­cif­ic func­tions through train­ing. Genet­ics is not des­tiny.

In par­tic­u­lar, it is impor­tant to keep in mind a few fun­da­men­tal, and often over­looked, facts:

  1. Smart pills” sim­ply don’t exist. It would be nice, of course, if we could all just take a pill to quick­ly and pain­less­ly increase brain health and per­for­mance. But, pub­lished evi­dence ques­tions the effec­tive­ness and safe­ty of both sup­ple­ments and drugs for cog­ni­tive enhance­ment. Now, while evi­dence that “smart” drugs actu­al­ly work is scarce at the present, we do have a wide-rang­ing body of research to sup­port the idea that a few fun­da­men­tal behav­iors have a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on our brain health and fit­ness, and these include phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise and a healthy diet. So why don’t we start there?
  2. Aging can bring decline… Start­ing in our late 20’s and ear­ly 30’s, research shows that speed of pro­cess­ing and work­ing mem­o­ry (the type of mem­o­ry that allows us to both hold infor­ma­tion in mind and work on it as need­ed) tend, on aver­age, to slow down, reduc­ing our capac­i­ty to process and deal with com­plex new infor­ma­tion. This is a grad­ual process that often first becomes notice­able in our ear­ly 40’s. How­ev­er, indi­vid­u­als vary sig­nif­i­cant­ly in how and when they expe­ri­ence these decreas­es: some peo­ple expe­ri­ence a sig­nif­i­cant decline while oth­ers do not.
  3. … and also improve­ment. On the oth­er hand, even after the brain is ful­ly formed in young adult­hood, researchers have found that func­tions that ben­e­fit from accu­mu­lat­ed prac­tice, such as vocab­u­lary-relat­ed lan­guage skills, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, and emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion, tend to improve decade after decade. In one study for exam­ple, researchers asked indi­vid­u­als from three age groups to read sto­ries about inter­group and inter­per­son­al con­flicts and pre­dict how these con­flicts would unfold. Com­pared to young and mid­dle-aged peo­ple, old­er peo­ple employed high­er rea­son­ing schemes that involved mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, allowed for com­pro­mise, and rec­og­nized the lim­its of knowl­edge. So, the point is, we need both to nur­ture our strengths and to address our weak­ness­es, if we are to main­tain peak per­for­mance along extend­ed life and career spans.
  4. Cells that fire togeth­er wire togeth­er.” By prac­tic­ing a skill over and over we stim­u­late the same neur­al net­works in the brain, result­ing in the strength­en­ing of exist­ing con­nec­tions and the cre­ation of new ones. Over time, the brain can become more effi­cient, requir­ing less effort to do the same job, which is why brain train­ing can work if prop­er­ly imple­ment­ed. This is also true with edu­ca­tion and life­long learn­ing. By increas­ing the con­nec­tions between neu­rons and increas­ing the so-called brain reserve (also known as cog­ni­tive reserve), learn­ing helps strength­en the brain against age-relat­ed decline and pro­tects us against poten­tial demen­tia pathol­o­gy. Edu­ca­tion is a life­long endeav­or, rather than one that large­ly con­cludes when we fin­ish school.

In short, our brains and minds are far from set in stone due to genet­ics or age. Grow­ing evi­dence sug­gests beyond a rea­son­able doubt that what we do at every sin­gle day has an impact on brain fit­ness that very same day and also lat­er in life. Edu­ca­tion, lifestyle, brain train­ing and deci­sions under our con­trol mat­ter as much as our genet­ic inher­i­tance in the tra­jec­to­ry of our men­tal capac­i­ty over time, a real­iza­tion that can be some­what daunt­ing but also immense­ly empow­er­ing. By read­ing this arti­cle, you have just now phys­i­cal­ly changed your brain’s neur­al con­nec­tions and tak­en a step towards a health­i­er and fit­ter brain. What will your next step be?

SharpBrainsGuide_3D_compressed–This is an adapt­ed excerpt from the book “The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages). This user-friend­ly, how-to guide cuts through the clut­ter of media hype about the lat­est “mag­ic pill” for bet­ter brain health, offer­ing proven, prac­ti­cal tips and tech­niques to enhance brain func­tion through­out life and help ward off cog­ni­tive decline. Please con­sid­er read­ing the book and join­ing the book dis­cus­sion in Jan­u­ary 2014!


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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.