Neuroscience', popularised in recent times by psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, and author of 'The Brain That Changes Itself' and 'The Brain's Way of Healing' Dr. Norman Doidge, is a seemingly ubiquitous term and one often touted with myths such as 'we only use a small percentage of our brains', as a result of limited scientific basis and understanding.
I have long been personally and professionally curious to better understand how our brains work and how we might optimise their function. More specifically, I have been keen to understand: Why do we think, feel and behave 'in-the-moment' the way we do? How we can make sustainable changes to our behaviours (and our thoughts and feelings)? How we can improve our memory? and more broadly, What can we do to optimise our brain health and function?
In pursuit of the latest neuroscience research and the most effective evidence-based strategies to unlock our minds' potential, this year I have been a student of Oxford-educated Neuroscientist, author, and TEDx speaker, Dr Sarah McKay and The Neuroscience Academy. Sarah successfully debunked some popular 'neuro-myths' for our global student cohort whilst integrating a 'step-by-step blueprint on how to apply brain science and neuroplasticity to life and work'. I found the learnings fascinating and I wanted to share a handful of top insights with the most actionable potential.
1. Our brains have evolved and stayed the same. Neuroscience research supports the notion that our brains have and do evolve (most obviously as we mature) and have also stayed the same. Most notably, as we become adults, one of the last regions of our brain to develop is our pre-frontal cortex (PFC), otherwise known as our 'rational brain'. Our PFC is responsible for our higher executive functions including emotional control, decision making, rationalising, and complex problem solving. The more primitive part of our brain is our limbic region including our amygdala and hippocampus also known as our 'emotional brain'. Despite our emotional brain's continued necessity for our survival such as prompting 'fight' or 'flight' responses, it can also be our undoing personally and professionally. The classic case in point are the times we're unable to keep our emotions in check and we boil over, or as Harvard's Dr Dan Siegel puts it, we 'flip our lids'. The science also suggests increased activity in the amygdala may actually repress PFC activity. This is most acute among individuals with chronic stress and depression, reiterating the importance of mental health. Example evidence-based strategies to better control how we think, feel and behave in the moment include 1) practising mindfulness to enhance our awareness, acceptance and control of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, 2) Cognitive Behavioural Techniques to shift dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (such as reframing an Automatic Negative Thought e.g. "I'm not good at excel" to a Performance Enhancing Thought e.g. "I can improve my excel skills"), and 3) Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or accepting what is outside of your control and moving forward with values-aligned action.
2. Our brains retain their ability to rewire throughout life. Of course, it is well known there are critical periods for neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (the capacity for our brains to change their structure and function) such as birth, during infancy, and early childhood. However the brain's capacity to change and improve its effectiveness and efficiency is possible throughout our lives, and is largely attributable to our experiences refining and strengthening the neurons and connections we already have. As the 2000 Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel's research showed when examining how memories are layed down, 'neurons that fire together, wire together'. Also known as Long Term Potentiation (LTP), when learning anything new and committing it to memory, the key is practice and repetition. Where this may manifest rather unhelpfully personally and professionally, is in the formation of automatic 'bad' habits such as negative thoughts, learned over time through repetition and once formed can be hard to break. Instead a new habit must be created in it's place, that is, attaching a positive alternative to the identified trigger or cue - and the research suggests the repetition to change the biological process can take anything up to a year! Of course the added complexity is whether you have the required motivation to change.
3. Optimising brain health and function requires a multi-factorial approach. The latest research indicates that some of the biggest dangers for the negative affects of brain ageing and disease such as Dementia and Alzheimers include chronic stress and depression. And although the brain inevitably ages, the good news from Charlene Levitan's study of centenarians, is that 70% is attributable to lifestyle factors, that is, what we're in control of. Based on the research, Sarah recommends a 'top-down, bottom-up, outside-in' approach to optimising our brain health and function including memory formation, consolidation and retention, increasing neuroplasticity and brain volume, alleviating mood disorders, and reducing our risk of developing dementia. 1) Top-down strategies include practising mindfulness to focus our awareness and attention and cultivating positive emotions, 2) bottom-up strategies include exercise (considered the best brain exercise), sleep (considered the foundation of brain health), and nutrition, and 3) outside-in strategies include better managing our stress responses, continuous learning, and fostering healthy social connections. A common thread was the close link between evidence-based Positive Psychology interventions and brain health and optimisation such as fostering positive emotions and connections, a growth mindset, visualisation, attention and awareness training, and goal-setting.
What will be your key takeaways to optimise your own brain health and function? How might you assist others to maximise their brain potential?
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