Neuroplasticity, Part IV – How to Strengthen Our Brain

A stress reducing environment.

A stress reducing environment.

In my last blog, I stated that “In my next, and final blog in this neuroplasticity series, I will discuss how we can strengthen our brains.”

In this blog, I discuss how we can strengthen our brains.

Neuroplasticity gives us the power to strengthen our brains, defined as improving our capacity for analysis, creativity and memory, and our ability to survive a life-threatening event.

We can strengthen our brains through: 1) a healthy lifestyle; 2) stress reduction; 3) positive relationships; 4) learning something new; and 5) focused attention.

For those of you who wonder how effective the five practices cited above are at strengthening our brains, I am here to testify to the incredible power of these five practices to allow our brains to even survive a life-threatening event. In my case, the life-threatening event occurred on November 12, 2018, when I collapsed at a mall near my home from a heart arrythmia. While Divine intervention was involved in placing me where someone who knew CPR and was willing to administer it to me saw me fall, the aforementioned practices helped my brain survive the 45 minutes between my initial heart stoppage and when the hospital was able to get my heart to beat on its own again.

A glimpse at the miracle, wrought by the combination of Divine intervention and the five practices cited above, is visible in the comment by the Clinical Psychologist who has tested my mental abilities multiple times since my November 12th event. During the most recent time that she saw me, she said she does not know why my brain did not suffer more damage from my ordeal.

I therefore hope that you read the following blog understanding that the five brain strengthening practices are not just the result of research studies. They are also a commentary on my life, and their ability to strengthen my brain, so it could even survive a life-threatening event.

Healthy Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle is critical for a healthy body and brain, and consists of: 1) aerobic exercise; 2) adequate sleep; 3) no smoking, addictive drugs, or excessive drinking; and 4) good eating habits.

Aerobic Exercise

Exercisers outperform non-exercisers in tests that measure long-term memory, attention, reasoning, and problem-solving in both familiar and new situations. It does this by increasing our blood flow, and therefore the oxygen, to our brain cells. The increased blood flow delivers more of the energy our brain cells need, and removes more of the toxic waste, created as our body extracts the energy our cells need, from the food we eat.

Adequate Sleep

While people vary on how much sleep they need, lack of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity. Hence adequate sleep is necessary to strengthen our brains.

Avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and addictive drugs

Chronic smoking and drinking are associated with cortical grey matter loss, which is a risk factor for greater-than-normal global cognitive decline and memory impairment. Drug abuse can have numerous negative effects on our brain, to include changes that erode our ability to make sound decisions. Hence, we should avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and addictive drugs.

Good eating habits

The risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower for those who eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy, and are void of processed and refined foods, and sugars. In addition, many unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics, which lower anxiety levels, perceptions of stress, and improve mental outlooks, compared to people who do not take probiotics.

Stress Reduction

Chronic stress can shrink the nerve connections in the brain area associated with memory. Hence, stress reduction is very important for strengthening our brain. Ways to reduce stress are: 1) meditation; 2) yawning and deep breathing; and 3) smiling, laughter, and positive thoughts.

Meditation

Meditation can help engage new neural pathways, improving self-observational skills and increasing mental flexibility. In addition, meditators exhibit increased grey matter (which processes information in the brain), improved attention, and better performance on learning and memory tasks.

Yawning and Deep Breathing

While most of us are taught it is rude to yawn around others, yawning can relax us in less than a minute. It also has the following benefits: 1) stimulates alertness and concentration; 2) optimizes brain activity and metabolism; 3) improves cognitive function; 4) increases memory recall; 5) enhances consciousness and introspection; 6) lowers stress; 7) relaxes every part of our body; 8) improves voluntary muscle control; 9) enhances athletic skills; 10) fine-tunes our sense of time; 11) increases empathy and social awareness; and 12) enhances pleasure and sensuality.

Conscious Deep Breathing, via slow focused breathing, triggers the body’s relaxation response and is one of the simplest ways to calm and integrate the mind and body. In addition, breath awareness meditation increases concentration.

Smiling, Laughter, and Positive Thoughts

Even if you don’t feel like it, the mere act of smiling repetitively helps to interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain’s neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life.

Mirthful laughter can stimulate the brain’s regulation of hormones that control mood, stress, blood pressure and immune responses. Laughter helps the brain regulate the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Even the expectation that something funny is coming suffices to bring about positive effects.

Happy thoughts and positive thinking, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in our prefrontal cortex, which serves as the integration center of all of our brain-mind functions. It also gives us the ability to focus on whatever we choose, and to gain insight about our thinking processes

Positive Relationships

Depression and anxiety disorders are common mental health disorders in the United States, and social isolation is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. According to a Health and Human Services report, getting married and staying married reduces depression in both men and women. In addition, positive relationships tend to engage multiple areas of the brain. A large Swedish study, of people ages 75 and over, concluded that dementia risk was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives.

Learn Something New

Learning something new can promote brain health because whenever we learn something new, a new grouping of cells comes together to form neural associations between them. And, with repetition or practice, these connections thicken and strengthen, meaning the behavioral response is more likely to be repeated. For example, in one study participants who learned a new skill experienced improvement on memory tests. And, the memory improvements were still present when tested a year later.

Focused Attention

Our brains begin processes of structuring neurons in certain patterns prior to birth, wiring and rewiring neurons together to form set pathways. Most of this learning happens subconsciously, that is, without our consciously thinking about it, since new learning occurs as new cells and connections between cells are formed. However, while events and experiences may alter the structure of our brain, new learning and connections largely depend on how we respond to events around us, rather than the actual events themselves. Since our beliefs are perceptions that interpret the events in our life, when we shift our perceptions, we rewire our brains.

Hence, when we apply focused attention to these processes, we get to choose the specific changes we want to make to our brain, since we are always in the process of becoming what we are thinking about most. And, because thoughts shape our actions and we become what we do, we should let our brain work for us by consciously focusing our attention.

Bringing it all Together

Taken together, the above discussion is about how we can strengthen our brains. It identifies the fact that we have the power to take steps that can strengthen our brains to have improved capacity for analysis, creativity and memory, and an increased ability to survive a life-threatening event.

In short, like a muscle, we can and should train our brain. And, we should train it like we train our muscles to master a sport, over a prolonged time period. Because, like a muscle, the more we use our brain, the better it will become at whatever we want it to achieve.

In my next blog, I will discuss epigenetics.

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