You can outsmart your brain – Neuroplasticity

Scientists used to think that the brain didn’t change after childhood. While it is true that our ability to learn new things is greater in our early years, it turns out our brains reorganize, physically change, and alter the function of different parts through our lives.

Each time we learn a new skill, make a new memory, rethink, respond, react, interact our brains change. Your brain is changing right now reading this post.

Why is this important?

Exercising and strengthening our brains is as important as keeping our bodies strong and limber.  The way you keep your brain in good shape spends on what you pay attention to, what you think, what you feel, and how you react to your environment.  You can change your brain with purpose by understanding how neuroplasticity works.

Two Main Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”*

Donald Hebb developed the idea that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that they connect more strongly.  Because neuroplasticity follows this rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but when neurons “fire apart” their connection becomes weaker. That means your brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle. Information and behaviors that you do not use weaken and may be completely lost. This is called called “synaptic pruning.

“It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”**

Brain change comes from external experiences

What we practice or are exposed to becomes part of our brain wiring.

Everything that happens in our life wires our brains.  What we repeatedly do becomes wired – everything from muscle patterns (remember when you first learned to walk, ride a bike?), to skills (learning a native language – when’s the last time you thought about how to form a sentence?) to smiling or frowning (do you have to concentrate on each of your facial muscles to express a feeling?).

To keep our brains growing, functioning well and avoiding decline, we need to give it challenges such as learning new skills, exploring new places, changing routines and interacting with people.

Brain change comes from internal experiences

Mental & emotional exercise changes our brains too. What we think and imagine can change our brains for the better or worse. Where we focus our attention directs the synaptic connections, the brains wiring, and develops and strengthens connections.

We can purposefully and actively create the connections we want. Thoughts and images we replay in our minds create stronger connections.  Make neuro-connections by thinking of things in sequence, create positive mental images, do crossword puzzles. (You already do this whenever you study for a test, read a book, rehearse what to say, worry about your future, ruminate on the past.)

Here are some proven ways to positively impact our brains:

 Mindfulness:

Practicing mindfulness is learning to control your thoughts and develop ability to focus where we choose.

Meditation:

By decreasing stress, anxiety and depression meditation helps encourage neurogenesis (development new brain cells). This can happen in just a few weeks.

Visualization: 

Neurons fire whether something is real or imagined. Imagining doing something is not very different from doing it in terms of  brain wiring. Athletes use this to “practice” by imagining a perfect performance over and over. It helps them actually perform better.  Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.

Now that you’ve finished reading, give yourself a pat on the brain for all the new neuro-connections it has just made for you.

*neuro-scientist Carla Shatz

**Dr. Michael Merzenich,  author of  Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life 

Reference: https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/

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Your Personal Happiness Quartet

How happy we feel is strongly influenced by 4 neurotransmitter chemicals: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. They are often called “the quartet.”

Endorphin on Electric Guitar, Serotonin on Sax, Dopamine on Drums, Oxytocin on Oboe

Here’s a very basic idea of what they do for you and 7 ways to help boost your happiness:

ENDORPHINS 

They promote a sense of well-being, lesson pain and are primarily released when we are in pain or stressed.  Endorphins work in similar ways as prescription anti-anxiety drugs and opiate painkillers but provide the benefits without all the side-effects.

Low levels of endorphins are linked to opposite effects: physical and emotional pain (including chronic pain linked to disorders like fibromyalgia), addiction and risk taking behavior.

SEROTONIN
Serotonin is often called the “happy hormone”.  It improves your mood and helps beat depression.  Not only does it help with mood stabilization but plays a big role in getting good sleep, dreaming, emotional and social stability.

Low levels serotonin are associated with various mental disturbances including: depression, anxiety, PMS,  sugar/carbohydrate cravings, trouble sleeping, obsessive thinking and addiction to alcohol or drugs. Too high levels can be  problematic as well.

DOPAMINE

Dopamine is one of the strongest “feel-good hormones”.   It makes you feel energized, alert, motivated and in control.  Within the brain, dopamine helps control the reward and pleasure centers as well as helping regulate movement and emotional responses.  Interestingly, it enables us to not only see rewards, but to take action to reach them. 

Dopamine deficiency is implicated in Parkinson’s Disease and people with low dopamine levels may be more prone to addiction.  Low levels can trigger depression, lack of concentration (brain fog), poor motivation and difficulty initiating and/or completing tasks.

OXYTOCIN

Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” since it’s released during highly emotional moments, such as  childbirth, being in love, and during orgasm. It motivates us to strengthen personal relationships, be faithful and facilitates compassion.  Oxytocin is a powerful hormone, produced mainly in the hypothalamus, and acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain

On the flip side, as a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, oxytocin fosters distinctions between “in-group” and “out-group” members, and sets in motion favoritism toward “in-group” members and prejudice against those in “out-groups”.

7 ways to get the “Happiness Quartet”

working more for you:

We are all capable of producing our own natural highs (without taking illegal or prescription drugs) and when we repeat  behavior that facilitates the release of neurotransmitters we become naturally motivated to create positive habits.

1.  Tasting

Neurotransmitters that signal the release of endorphins come mostly from nutrients in our diet, like amino acids, vitamins, fatty acids and minerals. 

Serotonin is made primarily through intake of tryptophan-rich foods, such as turkey or milk. Most proteins will help release serotonin, including meat, fish, chicken, poultry, cheese, milk and eggs, which are complete proteins. A number of different plant foods, such as beans with sprouted grains, will get the same effects. Whole foods like seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, peas, corn or the germ of grains, such as buckwheat and oats, are all good plant sources of amino acids that help increase serotonin.

Fats comprise 60 percent of the brain. Essential fatty acids support the activity of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Get healthy fats from coconut or olive oil, wild-caught fish like Alaskan salmon, nuts, seeds and avocado.

2.  Laughing

Laughter is a quick-fix for feeling almost instantly better, thanks to the release of endorphins.  Studies have even linked laughter with an elevated pain threshold. Try regularly doing something to keep your sense of humor: play with children, watch funny shows, recall a funny moment, share jokes, spend time with friends who have a sense of humor.

3.  Connecting

Give a hug, get a massage or simply have a deep conversation with someone you trust will all help release oxytocin and other chemicals that help you feel calm and comforted.  Some studies show acupuncture and other hands-on treatments  have similar effects. Make time for friends, reach out to others in need, find a sense of purpose and notice how good you feel when you do something nice for someone else.

4.  Learning

Every time you experience something novel or learn something new dopamine’s reinforces you.  With the internet, learning is at your fingertips.  Use your techno-time to look up something that peaks your curiosity,  travel, take up a hobby or get better at something you already do and release feel good neurochemicals.

5.  Smelling

The release of endorphins helps you feel calmer almost instantly when you smell the aroma of something that reminds you of fun or comforting times.  It can be as simple as the scent of fresh baked cookies, a parent’s favorite perfume or a dab of essential oil scents such as vanilla, chamomile, rose and lavender.  Your nose, after all, is close to your brain.

6.  Sunning & Nature

Sunshine and nature sites/sounds/colors seem to help regulate the release of serotonin and melatonin.  It only takes about 20 minutes a day to help your skin produce vitamin D (sunscreen will block this), which is important for your mood.  Studies indicate that exercising outdoors elevates mood better than indoors.

7.  Moving

A large body of research shows that people who exercise regularly have added protection against depression, reduce anxiety and get better sleep.  Exercise is one of the most endorphin-boosting things we can do. It also increases self esteem, gives a sense of mastery, increases energy levels, and thanks to dopamine, keeps you motivated to continue and improve.   You don’t have to do 10,000 steps or do intense workouts.  Research indicates that 3 times a week of brisk walking will do the trick.

Putting into practice all 7 ways to get the Happiness Quartet working for you:  

Eat a hardboiled egg while walking for 20 minutes in the park with a trusted friend, practice speaking Mandarin Chinese, laugh at your bad pronunciation and stop occasionally to smell the flowers.  How easy is that!

 

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What you don’t know can’t hurt you – AVOID these 6 things.

 How to Save Your Precious energy,  lower your level of confidence, decrease productivity and be dumber. Start by avoiding 6 simple things and be on your way!

Stop reading! (no, not this post, stop reading books)

  1. People who read often gain empathy for others, somethings that is helpful if you want to be an effective leader, which as we all know takes inordinate energy that can be used more effectively. Reading also keeps you mentally sharp which can be painful in troubled times. Dumb and dull can be cultivated. Try just laying about.

2. Do not sleep so much!

With less sleep your ability to plan, reason, organize and make decisions decreases. Neuroscientists have found that after being awake for 16 hours your ability to focus and your executive-function decrease. BUT your awake time will allow you to stream more favorite shows.  If you question this stay awake as long as you can and watch your productivity lower as your entertainment time increases.

3. No more fruits and vegetables!

Mental energy is affected by what you eat.  Getting a lot of micronutrients, minerals and vitamins you get from foods, such as fruits and vegetables, helps give you health and energy to be more productive. Stay away from them if you are already too energetic. Stick with cakes and cookies for short term boost instead (Read about that here).

4. Do not look at new ideas . . .

. . .  or go to new places. Stay with the familiar and do not look to other fields for inspiration. Doing novel things can change your brain chemistry and even the way you see the world. Curiosity can make you more productive and expand your world but will take away from valuable Facebook and Twitter time.  Remember!  What you don’t know can’t hurt you.

5. Quit learning!

Stay in your comfort zone where it is familiar and stress free.  That is where your mind will go soft, your memory less sharp and you can relax.  The Journal of Psychological Sciences published research showing that activities that demand hard thinking and new activities improves your memory. BUT who needs memory to enjoy the mundane . . . so do not take up new hobbies, learn a new useless language or play a musical instrument badly . . .

6. No more exercising!

When you get your body moving, you’re creating energy.  Yes, it will also lead to increased productivity, crease confidence, helps with aging, mental and physical health but it takes up your valuable time.  Even walking 30 minutes a day can ruin your chances of catching your favorite show or reading the latest “tweet”.


Adapted from:

6 Tiny Habits That Will Make You Smarter, Confident, and More Productive
Attaining and keeping a level of high performance requires a commitment to these 6 tiny habits.

By Julian Hayes II https://www.inc.com/julian-hayes-ii/6-habits-high-performers-use-to-stay-sharp-confident-productive-according-to-neuroscience.html

 

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