5 Key Ways to Create an Optimized and Healthy Brain
Have you ever wondered what it is in your physical body that enables you to comprehend the world in which you live and make everyday decisions? Are you curious about how you can generate thoughts and ideas that eventually translate into physical realities? Have you considered what organ drives your behavior and causes you to act the way you do?
If you have pondered these questions and many like them before, you are not alone.
From the dawning of the age of human enlightenment, philosophers had tried to find out what it was in the human body that generated cognition. One of the great philosophers of that time, Aristotle, even incorrectly claimed that cognition was a product of the heart rather than the brain, believing that the brain acted as a coolant system. However, the evolution of science has helped us now understand that the organ that enables us to think and do the things we do is the brain.
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.
Why your brain determines your reality
The human brain is the main organ of the human central nervous system. And, according to researchers, your brain makes decisions up to ten seconds before you even realize it. What decisions your brain makes determines who you are! By examining brain activity while making a decision, these researchers learned they could predict what choices people would make. They realized they could determine these before the person was even aware of having decided.
Dr. John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences who led the study says, “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Our brain functions like a big computer. Every day of your life, your brain produces hundreds of choices that shape your perception of the world. The brain processes information that it receives from our five senses and sends information back to the body.
These choices govern our every thought and action, from what to eat, what to wear, whether to pick up a call, what career path to choose, etc. The brain-wide fights for dominance that rage in your skull every second of your life give rise to who you are. However, the brain is much more complex than a machine, it is the root of human intelligence.
Let’s examine the role of a healthy brain and human intelligence through the story of Phineas Gage, who is one of the prominent medical interests of all time.
The story of Phineas Gage and its impact on brain research
A fascinating case of just how linked the physical brain is to our decision-making and social cognition is that of Phineas Gage. On September 13, 1848, Gage worked on the Rutland and Burlington railroad. He was using a large metal rod (a tamping iron) to pack explosive charges into the ground when the charge accidentally exploded, pushing the tamping iron up through the top of his skull, with the rod landing about 30m behind him.
However, by some miracle, Gage remained conscious after the accident and could even walk and talk. Although this is striking in its own right, the cognitive consequences of the injury have led to Gage’s notoriety.
Gage was known as intelligent and witty before the injury and had a position of responsibility as a foreman. His prior employer declared him unemployed after the injuries, claiming he was no longer the Gage they knew. Gage has been described as irreverent, using the most obscene vulgarity at times and impatient with restraint or counsel when it contradicts his inclinations.
After various temporary jobs, he died of epilepsy (a secondary consequence of his injury) in San Francisco, 12 years after his accident.
In a bid to really understand the effect the injury could have had on the negative behavior change he had during his lifetime, an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) reconstruction of Gage’s skull was carried out, and it was in this image that the researchers found damage restricted to the frontal lobes, particularly the left orbitofrontal/ventromedial region and the left anterior region. Research suggests that this region is crucial for certain aspects of decision making, planning, and social regulation of behavior, all of which appeared to have been disrupted in Gage.
This shows just how resilient the brain is and illustrates how important the brain is to different functions that contribute to our personality.
Science has made significant progress in understanding how the human brain works. The frontal lobes, for example, are thought to be the hub of rational thought and self-control. Neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, are also believed to be essential for our moods and general state of being.
Severe mental illnesses, such as Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia, are also known to be brain diseases. Impulses and impulsive actions can be affected by lesions or injury to the frontal lobes and other brain areas, as is in the case of Phineas Gage.
In reality, our behaviors are most likely the result of a complex interaction between our genetic makeup, brain chemistry, functioning, and the economic, social, and psychological contexts in which we grew up and lived.
How do you create a healthy brain for peak performance?
Let’s now focus on how we can effectively and rightly influence that which we can control — Our Brains — to ultimately improve our overall lives. We will now delve into the five ways this can be achieved. These five habits that we can build have to do with; diet, exercise, music, sleep, and meditation.
Your brain works hard, takes care of your thoughts and movements, breathing and sensing, and is active even while asleep. Because of all this activity, your brain requires a constant fuel supply, and this ‘fuel’ comes from the foods you eat. Hence, the constituents of your meals make a lot of difference and directly impact your brain’s structure, function, and mood.
A healthy brain performs best when you ingest high-quality food. Consuming foods rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants nourishes the brain while also protecting it from oxidative stress.
In like manner, eating unhealthy meals, such as diets high in refined sugars, is bad for the brain. They impair your body’s insulin regulation and promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have established a link between a high-refined sugar diet and poor brain function — and potentially worsened symptoms of mood disorders like depression.
According to research published in the Oxford Academic on the role of diet in brain performance and health, food and nutrition are essential in the maintenance of brain performance and also aid in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders.
So, make conscious and intentional efforts to eat brain-boosting foods such as coffee, eggs, dark chocolates, nuts, seeds, berries, vegetables, and whole grains, and you can be assured of a healthy brain that will give you its best performance.
A study completed at the University of British Columbia suggested that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory, have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.
Exercise benefits directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, inflammation, and increase the production of chemicals in the brain that affects brain cells’ health, the formation of new blood vessels in the brain, and the survival of new brain cells.
According to research, when you move your body, a number of helpful neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine are released into your brain. These substances can help deal with anxiety and depression.
Findings from another study revealed that exercise promotes neurogenesis, which is the birth of new brain cells — a process that is essential to improving cognitive function.
In a nutshell, specific benefits of exercise on a healthy brain include:
- It decreases the feeling of anxiety by lowering the level of stress hormones
- It facilitates the development of new brain cells
- It improves focus and concentration
- It guards the brain against neurogenerative diseases
- It Improves the ability to properly process emotions
- It Improves the circulation of blood around the body and to the brain
- It promotes clear thinking
Exercise may also bring physical benefits to the brain, such as increasing cerebral cortex thickness and boosting the durability of your white matter. These nerve fibers connect sections of the brain’s nerve-cell-rich gray matter. It also improves the ability of your brain to develop new neural connections and adapt throughout your life.
Here are some exercise tips you can employ:
- Exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes
- To regulate your weight, exercise in the morning, and if you want to build muscle, exercise in the afternoon
- Use autonomic systems to inform your workout schedule
- Practice nasal breathing
- Try to exercise in nature as often as possible
- Do your exercise at a consistent time each day
Music has always been a vital aspect of every human civilization, both ancient and modern. People all throughout the world have a universal reaction to music. Now, researchers can quantify how music affects the brain by engaging emotion, memory, and attention, thanks to advances in neuroscience.
A new branch of study known as neuromusicology, which investigates how the neurological system reacts to music, has even been created to discover the effects of music on the brain.
Music has been shown in studies to engage every portion of the brain and profoundly affect it. According to a recent study, music can help with many elements of the brain, including pain alleviation, stress release, memory, and brain damage.
It has also been discovered that listening to music is an excellent tool for keeping the brain engaged and optimized throughout the aging process, as it provides a total brain workout.
It is now known that listening to and playing music can make you smarter, happier, healthier, and more productive at all stages of life. So, put on some house music, hard rock, blues, jazz, tempo, or whatever music genre you enjoy most, and listen to the sweet sounds that your brain will appreciate.
Due to its continuous working, the brain is naturally programmed to get some sleep. Everything from cognition to attention to decision-making can be adversely affected when a person doesn’t get enough sleep.
In addition, persons who suffer from sleeplessness are far more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. The explanation for these links could be that the part of the brain that governs circadian rhythm (the daily sleep-wake cycle and all the physiological systems that rely on it) is disrupted in depressed people.
Sleep is essential for various brain activities, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with one another. Many brain regions, particularly those involved in emotion, learning, and information processing, are actually most active while you are asleep.
According to PubMed Central study, sleep plays an essential role in the consolidation of long-term memory. The research found that a healthy brain does this not only through strengthening certain neural connections but also through pruning back unwanted ones.
Sleep also plays a significant role in boosting creativity. There are even records of people experiencing creative insights during sleep or just as they wake up from it.
I will be releasing a future podcast episode with Dr. Sara C. Mednick, a worldwide renowned expert on the importance of sleep, but in the meantime, here are some of her recommendations:
- Early to bed, every night
- Stop caffeine early in the day and all liquids three hours before bed
- Control your light exposure
- Keep a continuous bedtime and waketime schedule
Meditation, in simple terms, is the act of sitting still and focusing the mind on staying free of burdensome thoughts to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. It has measurable effects on the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus areas of your brain, which are all involved in emotional response, decision making, sensory perception, and learning.
In a 2011 study conducted by Harvard Medical School on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain, a link between mindfulness and processing new information was discovered.
The brains of 17 people were evaluated before and after participating in an eight-week meditation program. Through brain scans, the researchers discovered that Gray matter increased in the areas of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotional control.
Furthermore, Carnegie Mellon University researchers conducted a 2016 study that proved how mindfulness meditation might increase concentration and improve decision-making. It showed that regular meditation practice can help you create a more robust neurobiology that:
- Contributes to a greater sense of well-being
- Helps to maintain a healthy brain as you age
- Aids in alleviating mental stress by helping you confront and let go of unwanted psychological states, like anxiety and fear, releasing their hold and the associated conditioned response.
- Promotes healthy, sustained focus and concentration
- And with consistent practice, meditation can also help you be more compassionate and develop empathy.
(I will be fully exploring the topic of meditation and how it expands the mind in a future article/podcast). If you want more on this topic, please listen to my interview with Dr. David Vago one of the foremost experts in the world on meditation. )
Build the brain that you want
In her TED Talk, Dr. Lara Boyd explains how the brain can unlearn old habits and learn new ones at any stage in life. She then challenges the audience to go ahead and build the brain they want.
In like manner, I am challenging you to take into practical use all the points that I have mentioned in this episode. Now that you know just how vital the brain is to who you are, you can live more intentionally and consciously build habits that will physically benefit your brain and, in turn, your whole life.
Eat well, exercise, get adequate sleep, listen to music you love, meditate, and focus on positive emotions.
By doing so, you will be helping yourself and every other person in the world by keeping your brain in the place where it can be its best and contribute some fantastic ideas and innovations for us all to benefit from.
- Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? I discuss where you invest your love; you invest your life in Episode 104
- I explain why materialism is impacting your success and happiness in episode 96.
- Do you know the science of healthy habits? I explore this in-depth in Episode 108.
- Suppose you missed my interview with Jen Bricker-Bauer on Everything is Possible. Don’t panic! You can catch up by downloading it here.
- How do you strengthen your relationship with your best self? Explore episode 110.
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