Focus on your brain and everything else will follow
When it comes to health, many of us immediately turn to things like weight, cholesterol levels, risk for cancer, blood sugar levels, and heart health, and we forget about the brain. Those other things are seemingly easier to grasp because the brain is encased in bone and has a mystical quality. The medical establishment has typically interfaced with the brain only when it is diseased or damaged. But here’s the key point:
When you put your brain first, everything else health-wise falls into place. The brain is ground zero. Don’t forget that it is what makes you. Your heart ticks, yes, but it’s your brain that ultimately makes you tick and determines your quality of life.
Without a healthy brain, you cannot even make healthy decisions. And with a healthy brain comes not only a healthy body, weight, heart, and so on, but also a stronger sense of confidence, a more solid financial future thanks to smart decisions, better relationships, more love in your life, and heightened overall happiness. So if you’re worried about something else—maybe those extra twenty pounds, the general aches and pains, the insomnia and chronic headaches—challenge yourself to make brain health a priority and watch what happens.
The Dirty Dozen: 12 Destructive Myths About the Brain
The brain remains a complete mystery
While there’s still a lot to learn about the brain, researchers have made tremendous understandings, knowing more about the connections between different parts of the brain and their relevance to how we think, move and feel. We’re better able to identify areas of the brain responsible for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction. We can better rehabilitate the brain after injury or stroke. The field of neuroscience is almost constantly brimming with new breakthroughs.
Older people are doomed to forget things
Sure, some cognitive abilities decline as we age, especially if we don’t consciously pay attention to remember. But whereas we may have seen quicker at learning a new language or memorizing a list of random words when we were a youngster, we’re more likely to be better with vocabulary and a good judge of character when we’re an adult. If we’re being scored on our social skills and ability to manage conflicts, again adults will do better. The other bright side of aging is that we tend to improve at regulating our emotions, stress and finding purpose in our lives.
Dementia is an inevitable consequence to aging
Dementia is not a normal part of an old page. We should be able to dispel this myth based on what we learnt from the previous myths. Typical age-related changes in the brain are not the same as changes that are caused by disease. Age-related changes can be slowed down. Disease-related changes can be avoided.
Older people can’t learn new things
Learning happens at any stage of our lives, especially when we engage in cognitively stimulating activities, for example meeting new people or trying new hobbies. While mastering some new languages or skills may take longer for an older person, that doesn’t mean the chances are none. Never say ‘never’. Even people diagnosed with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease included, have successfully acquired new skills and knowledge.
You must master one language before learning another
Children and teens who learn two languages at the same time do not confuse between the two, and even though they may take longer to master both simultaneously, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Different areas of the brain don’t go battle so there’s no interference to learning. Contrary to popular belief, bilingual kids often have a better general knowledge of language structure as a whole. And surprisingly, one of the reasons children seem to learn a new language more easily than their adult counterparts is that children are less self-conscious.
A person who has memory training never forgets
Memory is like a muscle. We use it or we lose it. It applies to everyone, even those who have the best memory training in the world. Training our memory will be an ongoing practice that we’ll need to maintain and evolve as we age.
Recommended Reading: Limitless by Jim Kwik
We use only ten percent of our brains
This myth has been around for quite some time, suggesting we have huge untapped reserves in our brain. Is it really true that the other ninety percent go unused? Absolutely not. From an evolutionary standpoint, that would be plain ridiculous.
Brains are demanding organs that take a lot of energy to build and maintain, and it doesn’t make sense to carry around surplus brain tissue. Experiments using PET and fMRI scans show that much of the brain is engaged during even simple tasks and injury to small sections of the brain called ‘eloquent areas’ can have profound consequences to language, movement, emotion and sensory perception.
Male and female brains differ in ways that dictate intelligence
Urban legend has it that men are better gifted with math and science while women are better suited for empathy and intuition. The truth is biological differences really do exist between the genders that result in variations of brain functions, the difference is not to the extent that one is better ‘equipped’ than the other. One way to think of it broadly: each of us may be wired in our own ‘unique’ way, though with a healthy brain we have a better capacity to learn, remember and make sense of the complex world around us.
A crossword puzzle a day can keep the doctor away
Another urban legend has it that solving crossword puzzles will keep your brain young. Unfortunately, crossword puzzles flexibly only a portion of your brain, mostly its word finding ability. So yes, they may help you excel at doing just that but not necessarily keep your brain sharp in any general. That said, some university studies have found that the more often participants engaged with puzzles, the better they performed in attention, reasoning and memory. What’s known is that keeping an active mind can help to reduce decline in cognitive abilities, and for some, doing crossword puzzles is one of the ways to do that. For others, it may not be.
You’re dominated by either your left or right brain
We’ve been told about this multiple times that our brain’s ‘two sides’ are intricately codependent. The idea that the right-brained people are more creative and the left-brained people are more technical originates from the realization that many people express and receive language more in the left hemisphere and emotional expression more in the right. Psychologists then used this idea to distinguish between different personality types. Yet brain scans have revealed the brain’s two hemispheres most often work together intricately. For example, language processing which was once thought to be the dominant in the left is now understood to take place in both.
You have only five senses
You can likely name all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, but there are others with the ‘-cept’ ending (which is Latin for take or receive). These little-known six senses give us more data about the outside world:
- Proprioception – a sense of where your body parts are and what they’re doing
- Equilibrioception – a sense of balance, otherwise known as your internal GPS, that tells you if you’re sitting, standing or lying down
- Nociception – a sense of pain
- Thermoreception – a sense of temperature
- Chronoception – a sense of the passage of time
- Interception – a sense of your internal needs like hunger, thirst and urge to use the bathroom
Your brain cells are hardwired and any damage to it is irreversible
If you’ve thought the head of a newborn looks proportionally bigger compared to its body size than the head of a grown adult, you’re right. As an adult, adding more information to your brain doesn’t increase the size of it. What does grow larger is the number of ‘neurons’ and the complexity of their network. We used to believe that we’re born with a fixed number of neurons for life and when we damage any of them, we cannot do any good again. Now we know differently. The brain remains plastic throughout the entire lifetime. We can rewire our brains and generate new brain cells under the right circumstances. Even people who’ve had an entire hemisphere removed in childhood can go on to function in adulthood. Their brains reorganize themselves to pick up the slack.
You can change your brain for the better or worse through behaviors and even ways of thinking. Bad habits have neural maps that reinforce those bad habits. Negative plasticity, for example, causes changes in neural connections that can be harmful. Negative thoughts and constant worrying can promote changes in the brain that are associated with depression and anxiety. Repeated mental states, where you focus your attention, what you experience, and how you respond to situations indeed become neutral traits.
The Fantastic Five: 5 Pillars to Keep a Sharp Mind
These five pillars were first described by AARP based on the existing scientific evidence that demonstrated these actions are fundamental to promoting good cognitive function across the lifespan. Here’s what they’re in no particular order:
This comes as a no surprise. Exercise, either aerobic or anaerobic, is good for the body and the brain. Everyday before sitting down, take time to do something physical whether it’s a bike ride, push-up or a walk around the neighborhood. Physical exertion, in fact, has far been the only thing documented to improve brain health and function. Movement can increase your brainpower by helping to increase, repair and maintain brain cells, making you more productive and alert for the rest of the day. As Matthew McConaughey puts it: “Just try to break a sweat every day.”
Doing something new, whether it’s picking up a new hobby, seeing a 3D movie for the first time, joining a new club, or even using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth, has been shown to strengthen the brain.
Relaxing is for your brain as much as it is for your body. Poor sleep and overwork can lead to impaired memory. Chronic stress can impair your ability to learn and adapt to new situations. The solution to both is to engage in stress-reducing activities and ensuring you achieve restorative sleep every night.
The link between the brain and the gut has long been anecdotal. But now we finally have evidence to show that consuming certain foods (extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole fruits, cold-water fish) and limiting others (those high in sugar, saturated fat and trans fat) can help minimize brain decline and protect it against diseases. The human gut microbiome – the trillions of bacteria that make their home inside our intestines – have a profound role in the optimal function of our brains. So it turns out what we eat really contributes to how our brains function.
So say a crossword puzzle gets a B- for their ability to boost brain function, what do you think gets an A? The answer is connecting with others, especially in person and face to face. A 2015 study tells us that having a diverse social network improves our brain’s plasticity and helps preserve our cognitive abilities. It turns out our social interaction not only helps reduce cognitive decline, also boosts our physical immune systems.
We’ve covered a great deal of information so far. We learnt a dozen myths about how our brains behave, followed by our five friends to slow down (and potentially reverse) the cognitive decline. Of course, it’s one thing to know and completely another to start living it. This is why Sanjay put together a 12-week action-plan at the end of Keep Sharp, along with plenty of scientific insights. If you feel like that’s for you, I highly recommend you grab your copy now.