Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Train Your Mind, Improve Your Brain

There's a theory on aging and memory that postulates that we don't get forgetful due to age but rather due to pruning of unused neural synapses and circuitry in the brain. Pruning is, in essence, a sloughing off of unused or unneeded brain cells and connections. Every time we do an activity that doesn't require our full attention, we use patterning which is a very useful strategy employed by our bodies because it is metabolically less taxing than if we had to fully concentrate on each and every task we performed. For example, looking back at your morning thus far, can you remember the texture of your breakfast, with arm you washed first or even the details of your car ride in? Probably not. We go on auto-pilot which is good for certain tasks but if our entire days are spent this way we end up doing more pruning than growing and we're bound to become more forgetful and worse at problem solving and critical thinking.

A Note on Patterning: Before I start talking about the importance of attending to tasks, I just wanted to briefly note the importance of patterning on athletic performance. As I mentioned above, patterning is a metabolically efficient strategy to perform rote tasks. For endurance sports, this is crucial! You don't want to be fully attending to every stride or stroke that you perform or you will be fatigued much sooner. This is one of the reasons why guided imagery and pre-race visualization works because even thinking about your race elicits activation in your motor cortex of the brain which over time will be re-wired to require less and less conscious attention and you will become more efficient. Conversely, there was a recent study that looked at people who performed physical activity while performing a cognitive task and found that once that cognitive task was removed, the participants performed markedly better. This is interesting in that adding cognitive challenges in practice while streamlining your performance with pre-race visualization and making activities as rote as possible during races may be a good performance enhancing technique.

Okay back to BUILDING the brain. Okay, so beyond the potential performance enhancing effects of not attending to tasks, for building a faster and more complex brain we want to attend. Attention promotes neurogenesis which pretty much means that the brain is growing more cells as well as the super highways that connect the various parts of the brain. So back to why we get more forgetful as we age: the idea is that each and every day we are exposed to fewer and fewer novel activities that don't elicit that full attention and thus not producing any new brain cells. The old adage, "if you don't use it, you lose it" doesn't apply just to muscles but also the brain. But don't despair! You can do one of two things to improve your brain's function.

            First, the hard one. Practice mindfulness throughout your day. Instead of reading the paper while eating breakfast, just eat your breakfast noting the texture, taste and feel of the food, how your breathing is affected as you eat and note how your body is responding to the food. When you're having a conversation with an individual, fully attend and listen to what they're saying rather than already coming up with a response. Studies on meditation and mindfulness practitioners have shown the immense brain circuitry that these guys have. It's just hard to always live in the moment.

           The second option is a bit more manageable, at least to start with, and that's to contrive novel tasks. Brush your teeth with your opposite hand. Read while standing on one leg. Learn a new language. Use brain games like Lumosity. Anything that challenges your brain and body and requires you to focus on the activity your doing is likely to result in some form of neurogenesis.

Stop reading this blog for a minute.

Did you stop? Hopefully. Now stand on your left leg and continue reading...

Remember: The brain is a part of your body, and you must exercise it if you want to have a sharp mind and memory. The connection between mental stimulation and dementia is strong and inversely correlated-meaning the less mental stimulation the more likely to develop dementia. Okay, you can put your leg back down. Hopefully this last paragraph helped stimulate your brain a bit more. And it got you standing, which we all now know is the better alternative to sitting.

So just as you train your body, make sure you dedicate some time to your brain as well. You'll thank me for it. If you remember.

Want to learn more about the importance of mental training? It's one of the topics at the Women on Wellness Conference. Find out more here.

Also check out 107.7 The Pulse on Saturday at 9:05am and Sunday at 7:05 to hear an interview with Amber.


  1. Great post! Not that I actually stood on one leg ;)

    As someone who comes from a family where dementia is a serious problem as we age, this is something I think about quite a bit.

    The brain can easily be compared to a muscle. Use it. Flex it. Stretch it. If you don't, it's going to atrophy.

    I've started doing 3 things to preserve my faculties which I hope are useful to some others here:

    1) Always do math problems in your head. Do not use a calculator (except to check your work!). Even if you need to multiply two four or five digit numbers, you can do this. It may take a while, but it can be done. And the amazing thing: you will get faster at it.

    2) Stop watching TV. It's a machine whose sole function is to destroy your capacity to think.

    3) Do brain training. Lumosity, BrainHQ, whatever. They're all good. Actually http://mindgamer.com is the best because it's 100% free community supported and frankly, more fun. But whichever one you do, do it every day. For me it's become an essential part of my morning.

    1. Great suggestions and glad to hear you're keeping your brain active:)