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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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