YOUR BRAIN IS A MUSCLE
Exercise it regularly
We often hear that if you want to stay healthy you have to exercise. If you want ripped abs and bulging muscles, you know you’re going to have to hit the gym – hard. But even if you don’t want to be like some bronzed god/goddess, researchers are saying you still should exercise regularly, which will promote longer life, better health in general and improve your mood. But what about our brains? We often think our concentration, memory and cognition is innate- meaning what you’re born with, you’re stuck with. But that’s not exactly true. Exciting work coming from around the globe is revealing the hidden potential for people to increase their memory, concentration, moods and even your spatial awareness. All you need, it turns out, is a little exercise.
To understand how we can exercise, we have to understand what we are dealing with.
Your brain is actually made up a lot of cells with lots and lots of connections. Cells connect to each other and communicate with each other through chemicals. That’s essentially how it all works. It turns out, that when your cells communicate with each other, they make physical connections, which we can call a ‘loop’. Cells communicate via synapses from the sending cell to dendrites on the receiving cell. When a synapse sends information to a dendrite - tadaaaa, you have a link in the loop. Now many links create a loop and this loop can be accessed again and again when you want to think of something. Each time you access that chain, you strengthen the connections of the loop. More cells are brought in, and cells bring more synapses to connect to the other cell’s dendrite. That loop can become SO strong, that you don’t even need to think about something to do it- that’s when things become automatic. Like riding a bicycle or driving a car. However, when you don’t use this loop, the connections become weaker and eventually break. This is what forgetting is.
So, the more you use a thought or an idea, the stronger the loop becomes. But how do we strengthen these loops or even create new ones?
Have you found yourself in a conversation with someone and the moment you left, you forget everything the other person said? Don’t worry too much, as this is quite a common phenomenon. There are different areas in the brain that deal with different types of short-term and long-term memories. For example, your hippocampus is usually involved in short-term and long-term memory storage. But recent work has shown that the perirhinal cortex (near the hippocampus) has been tasked with remembering new information. You cerebellum, which is SUPER far away at the back of the brain, is tasked with movement memory. And your amygdala is involved in emotional memory learning. All these regions of your brain need to communicate with each other, so you need to keep it up to scratch. One area has to loop to the other- and then back to OTHER regions of the brain. That’s A LOT of work, which requires a lot of energy.
The main causes of forgetfulness or short-term memory loss are usually fixable. The big one being asleep. It turns out, that when you’re tired, you are more likely to forget things. You have less energy and become less efficient at making and storing memories. To add to this, depression, anxiety and stress can all play a big part, making it more difficult for your brain to form these short and long-term memories. When you’re anxious or depressed, your body is storing energy, so your brain gets less energy and you can’t perform all these functions as well. Sometimes, a good diet and exercise helps combat with a lot of these issues. Other times, these changes can be so deeply ingrained in our neurochemistry, the only way to help is with medication. Either way, if you feel like you have anxiety or depression, don’t ignore it. Get some help!
One thing you can do to help your memory is trying to memorise small things every day. It will get easier the more you do it. The pathways that different areas use to communicate with each other get stronger. Also, a trick that people use is dividing things into ‘chunks’. Our brain is MUCH better at memorizing small things. For example, the number 200019801875 is one long number, But if you break it down into manageable 2000/1980/1875, your brain can handle this information better. Making associations with words helps. If you are always forgetting to take the rubbish out- perhaps put something on your door that reminds you about the rubbish. Eventually, you won’t need the prompt and just seeing your door will remind you of the rubbish!
#2: BODY MOVEMENTS
Lots of people are clumsy. I am SUPER clumsy. I often find myself walking into about everything. The best way to train around this is simple: New connections between your brain and your limbs. Your body movement is controlled by ONE tiny area of your brain, called the pre-central gyrus, or the motor cortex. Your brain has mapped out your entire body (interestingly called a homunculus) and has direct connections to each motor nerve throughout your body. You guessed it- connections are key here. The best way to be more in touch with your body is to experience it differently. Instead of using your dominant had to perform mundane tasks, like holding doors and brushing your teeth- try the other hand. This will strengthen connections between movements and different sides of your cortex! Also, try finding body parts with your eyes closed! It’s harder than you think. All of this will strengthen your motor cortex! Even skills like knitting, drawing, painting etc. will give your fine motor skills a major boost...
For me, this one is the killer. I find I have the concentration span of a small puppy. But fear not, there are sure fired ways to increase your concentration. Normally this all comes down to how you process information. We have LOADS of information coming at us all the time. Vision, hearing, smell, touch, danger, emotions. It’s constantly being processed by our brains. However, we're not always consciously overwhelmed with everything at once. Turns out a region in our brain called the thalamus is responsible for incoming and outgoing information. Kind of like the brains post office. When things go wrong with the thalamus, we often get disorders like ADHD. So how do we deal with all this incoming information more effectively? One tried, tested and true method is in fact meditation, and mindfulness (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/). I found that with meditation (which I am not the best at) you can really start to clear your thoughts. Concentration is also increased with better food and exercise. This is down to the release of chemicals called endorphins. Not only do these little guys make you happy, but they also help you sort out your priorities, clear your head and ignore distractions!
I hope that this helps a little. There is always more to talk about- but for the interest of the reader, I have kept it short. You can train your brain to be better on tests, reaction times and of course languages. Please do get in touch if you have any more questions! I love talking about this stuff. And it is always so nice to hear from interesting people like yourself.