Modern neuroscience has discovered some effective ways you can remodel your brain through simple lifestyle changes. In part 1 of this blog, we covered the fascinating ways in which your brain is geared to adapt to the demands you place on it. In this second part, we’ll cover some key concepts and takeaways that can help you harness your brain’s plasticity on a daily basis.
Changes in the brain are mainly limited to situations to when your mind is in the mood for it.
If you are feeling alert, engaged, or attentive, your brain releases neurochemicals to enable brain change. Think of priming your grey matter to be ready for action. On the flip-side, when you are disengaged, distracted, or doing something you find boring, your neuroplasticity is dampened.
Take away – engage in activities you enjoy or find fun
Following on from this, motivation is a key factor for triggering more significant changes in your brain. If you have an important reason for trying to master something or to take on a new challenge, the change in your neural networks will be greater. The will to win in sport is a great example, and the fear of losing can also be a motivator, which is why any form of competing with others is an easy way to ramp up your brain activity.
Take away – embrace challenges
Triggering neuroplasticity doesn’t actually mean that changes will stay. Creating long-lasting changes depends on whether your experiences are stimulating or fascinating enough, or if the outcome is felt as significantly good, bad, or meaningful on reflection. A key factor here is if experiences offer novelty or new challenges. For example, learning to play an instrument or mastering a new language are both known to induce wide and positive changes in the brain.
Take away – take on new experiences
An important concept in psychology is ‘optimal arousal’, which involves experiences which put your mind in a peak state. Optimal is a keyword because under-stimulation isn’t good, but over-stimulation becomes stress, which can be unhealthy. For example, an overly stressful job can lead to negative brain changes – essentially your mind learning to be unnecessarily anxious. This floods the brain with chemicals which interfere with clear thinking and memory. Achieving a ‘state of flow’ is the idea of being in the zone of peak experience - think of doing the things you love most.
Take away – seek out peak experiences
The long-lasting effects of neuroplasticity involve boosting the strength of the connections between neurons that are working together over time. A powerful way to boost these connections is repetition, in short - brain cells that fire together, wire together. So the more something is practiced, the more becomes hard-wired, and even automatic – think of a martial arts master. This is a double-edged sword, however, because connections that aren’t used can be pruned, leading to the idea of ‘use it or lose it’. This is known to be a key factor for older people keeping mentally healthy in their retirement years.
Take away – keep using important skills regularly
One of the most surprising findings in neuroscience is that mental rehearsal activates the brain and central nervous system in the same way as actually performing tasks in the real world. In this sense, imagining doing something in as much detail as possible actually provides a form of practice or training. This even includes dreaming. Going one step further, just watching someone else perform a skill activates your mirror neurons to simulate the experience as if you were performing it yourself. This is known to trigger real learning, for example, one study showed that golf caddies have skills superior to their level of actual playing experience.
Take away – visualize or watch anything you want to do better at
There are a number of ways that lifestyle choices directly influence brain function and your mental health. For example, the World Health Organization warns that smoking causes shrinkage of the brain and that high sugar consumption interferes with the absorption of nutrients essential for a healthy brain.
On the positive side, there are a few key things which can help keep your brain in tip-top condition. Firstly, countless studies show that regular exercise is great for your brain health and cognitive functions. Secondly, your brain is a glucose furnace, so keeping a steady and balanced level of carbohydrate intake throughout the day helps keep brain performing at its peak. Lastly, good quality sleep is a wonderful way to not only help your brain rejuvenate itself on a daily basis but also to consolidate what you’ve learned each day.
Take away – do your best to live a healthy lifestyle
If you missed the first part to this blog, you can read it here.
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