7 best habits for your brain
By Sergio van Pan
Believe it or not, your brain wasn’t designed to think. Its main job is to manage the giant biochemical workshop that is your body. For instance, the brain controls the movement of more than 600 muscles, it keeps dozens of hormones in equilibrium, it circulates what amounts to thousands of liters of blood per day, it controls the digestion of food, and hundreds of other processes. Your ideas, plans and projects are of secondary importance to the brain. In fact, more often than not, the brain conserves energy at their expense. But, by knowing the laws of neurobiology, you can create the conditions under which the brain will dedicate more resources to solving your problems. Here are seven good habits that will help the brain keeping you in great shape.
Your brain has a cognitive reserve, or the ability to perform at a high level despite exertions, injury, aging and stress. Everything the brain does, from breathing to writing computer code, happens thanks to neural networks. If additional resources are triggered while you’re overwhelmed, you won’t feel a decrease in performance, even in an emergency. The problem is that we usually solve the same old tasks day in, day out. So, to help the brain develop new neural connections and increase its cognitive reserve, you need to regularly acquire new experiences.
In sports, this is called muscle confusion. Muscles grow bigger, and fat burns faster if you strain different muscle groups, vary the level of load as well as type of exercise. The mechanism for growing neural connections works on the same principle. To not get stuck in the same mental routine, artificially surprise your brain from time to time. Neuroscientist Lawrence C. Katz calls this approach “neurobics.” Here’s the essence: perform common tasks in uncommon ways. If you’re right-handed, try brushing your teeth with your left hand (or vice versa), try a new route to work, rearrange your home and workspace every week, change your computer wallpaper more often, and try a new browser.
Psychologist Todd Kashdan offers an unusual version of neurobics in his book “Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.” He suggests that you regularly engage in what seems uninteresting to you. By trying something that has never appealed to you before, you force the brain to create new neural networks. Listen to music you never liked, go to an art exhibition if paintings don’t interest you, and read books if you’re used to watching movie adaptations.
Stay socially engaged
The people around us shape our brains. Friends, family, neighbors, casual conversations on the street, all of these social exchanges influence the brain. When another person raises their voice at you, your brain immediately releases stress hormones into your bloodstream. And conversely, a friendly embrace at a difficult moment releases endorphins in the brain, a substance that grants joy, dulls pain, and reduces stress. There is nothing better for the brain than the company of another brain, as long as everyone gets along, because this improves the memory and reduces depression. And there is nothing worse than a lack of communication. As psychologist Julianne Holt-Lastang showed in a study of 3.4 million people, social isolation is a health risk comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There’s even a theory which argues that our personality is arranged like a social network. The more contacts you have, the faster your Network Self develops. It updates itself, it provides itself with support for current media formats, it switches to more efficient compression tech, and it fixes bugs. Therefore, whenever possible, look for company and active communication, because this will give your brain a great workout and improve your mental health.
Walk and dance
Why do trees have no brain? Because they stand immobile, motionless, says neuroscientist Shane O’Mara. If you don’t move, you don’t need a brain. The brain developed through evolution because of movements, and to search, to navigate, to calculate distances, to assess safety and security, to remember directions. When Einstein or Jobs needed to find new ideas, they went for walks, because the most beneficial type of movement for the brain is simply walking at an average pace. It reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for “straight line” thinking, and increases the flow of creative ideas. Scientists have determined that just 6-15 minutes of walking in the fresh air increases creativity by 60% .
Even a light load on the foot, like during a slow stroll, accelerates the flow of blood to the brain. But the main benefit to the brain during walking is the vestibular apparatus. The balance system in the inner ear is connected to the pleasure centers. This is where the feeling of lightness at a measured walking speed of 120 steps per minute comes from (that’s two steps per second). Walking with a springy step activates the brain even more. But if you want to get a powerful boost of positive energy, you need to jump or dance. The resulting sensation of a controlled fall or flight causes real euphoria in the brain. And if you add a small load on the musculoskeletal system to this (for example, a backpack with a laptop), this further stimulates the release of the RbAp48 protein, which improves memory, in combination with the hormone osteocalcin, which is produced by bones.
The brain itself consumes 20% of the calories we get from food. With such an active metabolism, lots of wasteful biproducts are released, which must be disposed of. To do this, the body undergoes something called brainwashing while you sleep. In the phase of deep dreamless sleep, every twenty seconds, brain tissues are cleaned with cerebrospinal fluid, which cleanses them of metabolic biproducts. If deep sleep is shorter than 70 -90 minutes, memory and concentration problems, mood swings, and a feeling of fatigue could occur.
You can measure the duration of deep sleep using smartwatch apps like Sleep Cycle or Pillow, which analyze sleep phases. There is also an interesting Luminate app (for iOS and Android) that helps to maintain longer deep sleep. This is how it works: you turn the outside camera of your smartphone towards you, close your eyes, and a flash begins to flicker to music, with changing intensity and frequency. The idea is that the natural rhythm of the brain will change to the frequency of flickering light and adjust its natural range to the gamma range, which associates with calmness and focus. This effect was recorded during brain scans of Tibetan monks in a state of deep meditation. The effect is scientifically proven. Psychedelic expert David Hillier, who tested the app in various modes, writes that the relaxation effect is stronger when you use binaural beats as an audio background.
Get enough breaks while learning
Don’t try to learn too much all at once. Trying to absorb as much information in as little time as possible always backfires. First, you will tire quickly. Our brain, being the most energy-intensive organ of the body, tightly controls its energy consumption. If you cross the line, it creates a feeling of fatigue to force you to stop over-expending energy. Secondly, you run the risk of not remember anything at all. The brain has a limited amount of working memory, so it constantly overwrites data in the ‘cache,’ claims Piers Howard, director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science, in his book“The Owner’s Manual for the Brain.”
To ensure that new information doesn’t overwrite existing knowledge, break your learning session down into small blocks that can be studied in 30-40 minute intervals. And take micro-breaks to absorb information faster. Research shows that during 10-second pauses, neurons in the hippocampus and cortex reproduce the same activity patterns as those during learning, but twenty times faster. The more often you repeat this process, the faster you learn. During your breaks, it’s best to relax and close your eyes. Our vision takes a giant thirty percent of the brain’s resources. By closing your eyes, you shut off that processor-intensive function for a while, freeing up resources for other work. Something similar happens to the brain during deep sleep. Studies have shown that people remember forty-four percent more with their eyes closed.
Manage stress with breathing techniques
Chronic stress is one of the biggest obstacles to a well-functioning brain. Orientation in space, working memory and learning ability suffer because of it. But the most significant difference is that your decision-making strategy is forced to change. Under the influence of stress, the brain loses creativity and chooses a routine or standard approach when a non-standard solution is required. To combat the effects of stress, it’s usually advised to influence the brain through consciousness. For example, meditate. But there is a simpler method: to shift the brain into recovery mode, by changing your breathing patterns.
One of the physiological features of a stress response is rapid shallow breathing. By adjusting the depth and rhythm of our breathing, we give the brain a signal to move away from a stressful state to a normal one. The main principle is to slow down your breathing. Inhale six times a minute and exhale six times a minute, at five seconds each. This routine allows you to increase the flow of oxygen, and also stimulates the long vagus nerve in our body, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which inhibits stress.
Cut back on sugar
Yes, the brain eats sugar. More specifically, glucose. With this glucose, ATP molecules are produced in the mitochondria, which is the energy generator for neuron. These ATP molecules serve as fuel for the brain. But this doesn’t mean that you need sweets to increase your mental capacities. Firstly, the body can extract glucose from almost any food, not necessarily just sweets. Secondly, neurons, unlike fat cells, lack the ability to store nutrients. So an excess of sugar isn’t more likely to add brain capacity, as it is to add centimeters around the waist. Thirdly, as research has shown, with a regular increase in blood glucose, thinking actually slows down. This is likely due to the fact that sugar in large doses suppresses the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors in the brain, which are associated with cognitive functions.
To fuel your brain properly, cut down on added sugar and start your day with ‘long chain’ carbs and proteins(eggs, cheese, nuts, beans, vegetables). This will help you avoid the energy slump that often happens after sweets, when a spike in blood glucose is followed by a quick drop.