The Best Brain Advice From The Brain Experts

shutterstock_85544854I recently asked a group of some the most knowledgeable leaders in brain fitness movement- I mean these guys are at the forefront of educating us on brain health and using our brains to achieve  wellness and happiness – what their #1 advice would be to someone about taking care of their brain.

You might expect their answers would include serious diet modifications, major lifestyle changes, or some rigorous mental exercise program, eh?  But no.  I think their responses will surprise you because every single piece of advice is something you can easily do today, on your own, without making drastic changes, or spending money.


Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD is the brain behind BrainHQ and the author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.  For nearly five decades, he has been a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research. As co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, Dr. Merzenich heads the company’s science team.

First, you have to BELIEVE you can change for the better, and you have to believe that your brain is plastic. Second, you have to live your life with your brain turned ON. Engage with the world, challenge yourself, choose activities that benefit the brain like those that engage multiple modalities at a time. You can be better, stronger, and more effective, regardless of your current neurological status.  Dr. Michael Merzenich

Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author.  His books include Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time.

Our brains are naturally wired to focus on bad news and are very good at building structure from negative experiences.  While our brains can change for the better from beneficial experiences, it generally increases this encoding process to deliberately sustain, intensify, and highlight the emotional and sensate aspects of these experiences.  By training the brain to look for good facts, turn these into good experiences, and then – most important – really internalize these experiences, a person will steepen their growth curve in life, and develop more happiness, love, confidence, and peace.  Dr. Rick Hanson

Barbara Arrowsmith Young is Founder and Director of the Arrowsmith Program, a cognitive program utilizing neuroplasticity for students with learning disabilities. The program is based on Arrowsmith Young’s personal experience of living with learning disabilities which she details in her book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

The importance of reducing stress on brain health needs to be understood – if people can do one thing a day to reduce stress – from meditation, giving gratitude, walking in nature, getting a good night’s sleep – research has demonstrated that this has significant positive benefits on brain health and function.

Also I would encourage people to work on improving their cognitive abilities through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce the cognitive decline that impacts us as we age. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so continued exercise of the brain can keep our cognitive functions healthy.  Barbara Arrowsmith Young.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996.  Dr. Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened and chronicles the experience and her recovery in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

Sleep is everything.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Marie Pasinski, M.D., Harvard neurologist, brain health expert and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You: Look Radiant from the Inside Out by Empowering Your Mind writes a regular column in the health section of The Huffington Post.

Prolonged sitting takes a profound toll on your brain – simply getting up every half hour for 2 min improves brain blood flow and metabolism, promoting new connections and new neurons. Set a timer or a fitness band ‘idle alert’ to keep you on your toes! Dr. Marie Pasinski, M.D.

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-founder of SharpBrains and author of  The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age.  

Don’t outsource your brain. Not to media per­son­al­i­ties, not to experts, not to your smart neigh­bor… Make your own deci­sions, and mis­takes. And learn from them. That way, you are train­ing your brain, not your neighbor’s. The same way everyone with a car needs to learn the basics on how to drive and maintain a car…everyone with a brain needs to learn the basics on how our brains and minds work and how to maintain, if not enhance, them.  Alvaro Fernandez

Dr. Jeff Browne is Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success.  Please visit the website for his son’s memorial scholarship.

Quit looking in all the same places for success.  Your brain is capable of so much more than routine.  Use your opportunity radar to find your own road to success don’t be an imitator or wanna-be.  Believe your brain has the capacity and components necessary to achieve your goals—particularly when you feed it and exercise it well.  Dr. Jeffrey L. Brown

Why Your Eyes Look Up And Your Tongue Tenses When You Think

beautiful womanWhen thinking, you often just naturally roll your eyes up and your tongue tenses in your mouth. Ever wonder why you do these things?  There are real physical reasons for both.

Go Ahead…Roll Your Eyes

Rolling your eyes up is an automatic response the body makes when trying to access lost or hidden information because doing this causes alpha waves in your brain. The production of alpha waves is physiologically linked to the movement of the eyes. and if you close your eyes and roll them up, you’ll churn out even more alpha waves.

Making alpha waves is a good thing as they are present in a relaxed state of awareness, such as in a day dreaming mind.  An alpha brain state is between waking and sleeping and provides a bridge to the subconscious mind.  Alpha brain waves allow for vivid, lucid imagery and assist in creativity and insight.

Eye rolling has long been used as a meditation technique because it more quickly leads to an altered state of consciousness and the theta brain waves sought after in deep meditation.

For some creative inspiration, a relaxing break in your day, or a meditation tip, you can kick-start your brain’s alpha waves by doing this simple but profound technique.   Anna Wise suggests specific exercises her book Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves:

  • With your eyes closed, inhale and gently raise your eyes to look toward the center of your forehead.
  • When you exhale, lower your eyes.
  • Again when you inhale, gently raise your eyes behind closed eyelids.
  • And when you exhale, lower your eyes again.
  • Repeat for three or four more breaths.

It’s the movement of the eyes that causes the production of alpha waves.  So, you don’t want to continuously hold your eyes up.  After a few minutes, the alpha producing quality of this action diminishes, and your eye muscles are delicate and easy to tire.

Thinking With Your Tongue

When people think, they have a tendency to talk to themselves.  Even if you are not consciously aware of this subvocalization, your body, more specifically, your tongue is.  It will tense up when you’re thinking, ready for action.

You may experience this as a general stiffness of your  tongue.  It may lift up off of the floor of your mouth, pull at the back of your throat, move as if talking, or you may not feel it consciously at all. If you relax your tongue completely, it’s very difficult to talk to yourself.

Go ahead, I know you have to try it.  :)

Relaxing your tongue makes it much more difficult to think. 

This simple technique can help stop your internal chatter and quiet your mind when you just need a moment of peace or when meditating.  Relaxing your tongue radically reduces the production of thinking beta brain waves and stills the mind.

Relaxing the tongue is such an effective practice that, in her book, Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves, Anna Wise writes, “If you take nothing else away with you from reading this book, you will have gained enormously from this one practice. “

She offers the following exercises:

  • Close your eyes and allow your tongue to relax.
  • No one will be looking at you, so it’s OK to let your mouth hang open slightly.
  • Just simply let your tongue go, especially the back of your tongue.
  • As you exhale, feel it let go even more.
  • Exaggerate the relaxation.
  • Exaggerate it again.
  • You can almost feel your tongue floating in the cavity of your mouth.
  • You may feel it shorten some – or thicken.
  • Exaggerate the relaxation even more.
  • Focus on only relaxing your tongue – nothing else.

I can’t help but think of a Labrador Retriever about now.  Maybe we could learn something from them?  They always look pretty happy!

Building A Better Brain

idea ,teamwork and business conceptWhen I woke up from the coma  I’d been in for the past week,  I was barely there.  It was as if the light in the attic had a short in the wiring and was dimly flickering on and off.

I couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, and my brain couldn’t make sense of what it was seeing.  To my surprise, garbled noises and mutilated words spewed from my mouth when I opened it to speak.  What did come out was disturbingly slow, flat, and mangled. The sluggishness of my speech was an indication of how quickly my brain was working – not very fast.

I’d tried to commit suicide by swallowing an assortment of pills, mostly brain drugs, and although I’d survived, my brain was stuck in a drugged stupor.

Over the year after the attempt, I naturally recovered enough to resume living independently, but was still mentally impaired.  I had short-term memory problems, an inability to focus, aphasia, poor people skills, no math aptitude, and little impulse control.  By then, I’d healed enough emotionally to decide that I did want to live, and I promised myself, “I AM NOT living like this!”

So, I started learning everything I could about how to rebuild my brain and tried anything that might possibly help me from supplements and exercise to alternative therapies and brain training.  The more I learned, the better I got, and the better I got, the more I learned.

After hearing about Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program (BFP – now offered as part of  BrainHQ) from my neurofeedback  practitioner, I purchased the software and began a daily brain training schedule. The BFP had me begin by doing an exercise to assess my brain’s processing speed which involved listening to sounds that went up or down, called sweeps.

I remember how infuriatingly difficult it was for me to tell whether the sound had gone up or down.  I would have to visualize the sweep in my mind.  Did it go down and then back up like a check mark or the other way around?  At first, I couldn’t tell most of the time,  and as I improved, the software adjusted to continually challenge me.

At the end of the program, I did another assessment and was thrilled to find that my processing speed had more than doubled.  Wow!  I’d discovered something that substantially improved my brain that didn’t require expensive doctor’s visits, medication, or therapy.  It was as simple as sitting at the computer and having fun.

After I saw that the brain training was doing something pretty remarkable, I went through the program again and again until I stopped seeing improvement.  Then, I went on to other brain training products.  However, I would run back through the BFP occasionally to give my brain a tune up.

The brain injury also left me with some slight visual processing deficits which completely resolved after doing Posit’s InSight program for memory, vision, and focus (Also now part of BrainHQ).  For instance after walking the dog one day, I threw the black leash down on the ground among pine needles and leaves.  To save my life, my brain couldn’t pick it out of  the myriad of shapes and colors.  My Dad walked right over and spotted it immediately.

Does Brain Training Work?

Like anything new, the effectiveness of  brain training is still the subject of some debate in the scientific community, and you can find studies for and against it. But there is no debate in my mind. It helped me dramatically and was crucial to my recovery.  But the cool thing is, it can work for your brain too.  No brain injury required.  However, my results may have been so significant because my brain had so much room for improvement.

The article Can Brain Training Work by SharpBrains reads:

Evi­dence is grow­ing that brain train­ing can work….Why do we still often hear that brain train­ing does not work? Because of the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of what ‘brain train­ing’ and ‘work’ mean. A machine to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles prob­a­bly won’t ‘work’ if what we mea­sure is blood pres­sure. 

Brain training takes advantage of neuroplasticity, the ability of  the brain to change its form and function based on repeated input throughout your life.  Your brain is changing every minute of everyday as a result of what you do, feel, and think anyway.  Brain training exercises harness and direct this process.  Just as you workout to exercise your body, you can exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills to keep them in top shape.

There are a lot of “brain training” and “brain game” companies out there, and they’re not all created equally.  When looking for a brain training product, it’s important that it be based in and backed by science.  I like Posit’s BrainHQ which has over 70 published, peer-reviewed studies in academic journals that show lasting brain benefits.  Posit Science is led by a leading brain plasticity scientist, Dr. Michael Merzenich, with one-fourth of company employees holding PhDs.

The BrainHQ website puts it this way:

Think of it like a tree
Healthy roots able to absorb plentiful nutrients and water make for a stronger trunk, shinier leaves, and more fruit. A BrainHQ brain exercise strengthens the brain from the roots up. This approach is different from many others, which provide compensatory strategies, teach the brain ‘tricks’ to remember, or drill the brain with memory exercises. Many scientific studies demonstrate that such a focus on caring for the fruit while ignoring the roots has only limited benefits.

BrainHQ is an online brain training service with over 30 exercises to  improve memory, attention, brain speed, people skills, intelligence, and navigation. It is based on the original BFP I did which came as a diskette in the mail back then.  (That was only 7 years ago!)  Now, BrainHQ even has specific exercises to better chemobrain, driving, vision, hearing, and sports performance.  The first levels of select exercises are free, and you can use them as often as you like, for as long as you like.  However, you can access the full range of BrainHQ’s exercises and benefits by subscribing.

The benefits of brain training  include:

  • Faster thinking
  • Better memory
  • Get more things done
  • More receptive to try new things
  • Finding words
  • Sharper listening and vision
  • Quicker reflexes
  • Safer driving
  • More self-confidence
  • Improved mood

Brain training can be an important part of a brain healthy lifestyle.  Along with exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, mental challenge,  and social engagement, brain training can help ensure that your brain stays in good working shape as you age.   With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to triple by 2050 according to the Alzheimer’s Association, brain health is a top concern to most everyone….or should be.

The Down Side Of Antidepressants

376335443_7f63ecac35_zOver the past two decades, the use of antidepressants has skyrocketed. One in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication, and among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure shoots to one in four.

Numerous reasons are offered for the increase. Depression is common.  Economic struggles and a fast-paced culture have added to everyone’s stress and anxiety. Television ads promote antidepressants.  Most insurance plans cover them.

There may be another possible explanation: the condition is being overdiagnosed and drugs being over prescribed.

A study, published in April 2014 in The Journal Of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, found that nearly two-thirds of a sample of more than 5,000 patients who had been given a diagnosis of depression within the previous 12 months didn’t meet the criteria as described by the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).

According to the study, the majority of individuals diagnosed with depression, rightly or wrongly, were given medication which was the result of doctors prescribing and patients demanding the drugs.

According to a report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, antidepressants work best for very severe cases of depression and have little or no benefit over a placebo in less serious cases.  The success rate of antidepressant use is even less outside of the clinical trials because of real world conditions such as co-existing illnesses.

For some, especially the most severely depressed, antidepressants do work.  In fact, they can be life-saving; however for many, antidepressants fall short.  Regardless, they are prescribed in alarming numbers and taken like candy.

These Are Serious Brain Drugs, People!

The truth is that, just as there is a great deal still unknown about how the brain functions, experts aren’t really sure how antidepressants work.  You might have seen depression explained as a “chemical imbalance” or a “serotonin deficiency.” It’s not quite that simple. We really don’t know what causes depression, how it affects the brain, or what’s a cause and what’s a symptom even.

Many researchers believe that the benefits of antidepressants stem from how they affect brain circuits and chemicals, called neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain.  In ways not totally understood, different antidepressants affect how these neurotransmitters behave, but there’s no test to measure chemical levels in a living brain and there’s no way to  know what a low or normal level  is much less how antidepressants alter these.

Newer research suggests other biological contributors to depression, including inflammation, elevated stress hormones, immune system suppression, abnormal activity in certain parts of the brain, nutritional deficiencies, and shrinking brain cells. And these are just some of the possible biological causes of depression.  Social and psychological factors, such as loneliness, lack of exercise, poor diet, and low self-esteem, also play an enormous role in the condition.

Nonetheless you’ve seen it on ads, read it in articles, and maybe even heard it from your doctor: depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that medication can correct.  People demand the drugs; doctors prescribe them; and insurance pays for it.  So, where’s the problem?

Make no mistake about it.  Whether they work or not, antidepressants are serious drugs affecting the chemistry of the brain.

Antidepressants And Suicide Risk

For some, antidepressant use causes an increase rather than a decrease in depression and an increased risk of suicide. While this is particularly true of children and young adults, anyone taking antidepressants can experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The risk of suicide is greatest during the first one to two months of starting the drug.

The newest class of antidepressants, SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, have been associated with an even higher suicide risk.  In 2004, the FDA directed manufacturers to add a “black box” warning of  increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and adolescents taking antidepressant medications and emphasizing the need for close monitoring of patients starting on these meds.  In 2007, the FDA  updated the message to include warnings about increased risks in young adults ages 18 to 24 during initial treatment. Monitoring is especially important if this is the person’s first time on depression medication or if the dose has recently been changed.

When I tried to commit suicide, I had already been on one antidepressant for years and was two weeks into taking a new antidepressant in addition to it.

Contrary to press reports, Robin Williams was on drugs at the time of his death – antidepressants. The particular antidepressant he was on carries 10  international drug regulatory warnings about causing suicidal ideation.  A powerful antipsychotic also appeared to have been recently taken by Williams. While toxicology tests were negative for the antipsychotic at the time of his death, a bottle  prescribed to him seven days prior to his suicide was missing 8 pills. The dosage instructions advised taking one pill per day with the side effects listed as psychosis, paranoid reactions, delusions, depersonalization, and suicide.

There Is No “One Size Fits All” Solution

Antidepressants can help treat depression, but come with serious risks. Untreated depression and psychiatric illness carry significant risks too.  Untreated depression is far more likely to result in someone’s suicide than someone who takes an antidepressant.  This is not a simple, black and white issue. There are lots of gray areas.

The one simple, right-thing is the need for people to be informed about depression, its probable contributing factors, and possible treatments BEFORE taking an antidepressant. And when a medication is decided as the way to go,  the person  needs to be monitored by a professional initially and beyond.

In cases of severe depression, medication may be one part of a balanced treatment approach. However,  effective solutions are going to be as varied as the individuals with depression. Some other treatments proven to lessen depression in some cases include talk therapy, exercise, meditation, dietary changes, or other mental health tools which don’t have the side effects and risks of medication. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where a patient speaks with a licensed mental health counselor, reduces the risk of repeated suicide attempts by 50%.

I did CBT for two years after my attempt, and it was life changing for me.  The therapy helped me to totally alter my way of thinking, emotional reactions, and approach to challenging events.

So while drug treatment can be beneficial and certainly has its merits, it’s by no means the only answer. There are other effective treatment approaches that can be taken in addition to, or instead of, medication. It’s up to each person to inform themselves, evaluate their options, and decide what’s best FOR THEM. 

IMPORTANT! This information is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. If you are taking an antidepressant, do not change your dosage without consulting your physician.

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/pave_m/

Sources for this article:
http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/are-antidepressants-effective
http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/antidepressants-depression-medication.htm#how
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/10/20/141544135/look-around-1-in-10-americans-take-antidepressants
http://www.carlatbehavioralhealth.com/free_articles/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-versus-medications-depression-how-do-they-compare-free
http://www.webmd.com/depression/how-different-antidepressants-work
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3313530/
http://www.cchrint.org/2014/11/10/robin-williams-was-on-drugs-at-the-time-of-his-death-antidepressant-drugs/
http://www.drugwatch.com/ssri/suicide/
http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2004/ucm108363.htm
 

Where’s The Thanks In Thanksgiving?

shutterstock_228542401Although I rarely read magazines of any kind, I was gifted a subscription to one.  Because it had landed on the top of the stack of reading material on the kitchen table, I flipped through it as I slurped my spaghetti squash, spinach, mushroom, zucchini, and tomato sauce (made from prime specimens out of my garden) concoction for dinner.

Now, I do realize that I’m not your average American with my vegetarian, label reading, mostly unprocessed diet,  daily yoga or exercise, meditation, and other alternative lifestyle habits. Some may even label me extreme.  I know my kids are more than tired of hearing my sermons, as they call them.

But, surely I can’t be the only one disgusted by what I saw in the magazine.  And it was one of the better ones!

The main focus of the issue was Thanksgiving recipes.  Although the dishes did sound and look delicious, (No matter how much I will them not to, my taste buds still like the not-good-for-me stuff.) I couldn’t help but cringe at the the thought of how bad for me “Pumpkin Tart with Whipped Cream & Almond Toffee” or “Pepper Bacon Fried Turkey” had to be.

As I flipped through the pages, an insanely attractive woman on what had to be expensive Egyptian cotton sheets promised me that her product would make me “sleep  like a baby.” Who looks like that when they are going to bed?  Certainly not me.  Know what else can help you sleep like a baby?  Physical exercise.  Learning to calm your mind. Relaxation and breathing exercises.

On another page, I learned that an oversized glass and bronze light fixture costing $1260 could make my small dining space feel bigger.  So, that’s what I’ve been missing all this time!  (No matter that I don’t even  have a dining room.)  For that kind of money, I could almost add one, make a big dent in my monthly bills, or make a big difference in the life of someone less fortunate or the life of many animals.  One light fixture?  Really?

Next, Julia Roberts flashes me  her pearly whites and tells me that “Life is beautiful” with the “fragrance of happiness.”  The page has one of those panels oozing the scent.  Just smells like the cosmetics section of a store to me.  I’m willing to bet that the perfume doesn’t have any essential oils known to actually elevate a person’s mood.  Smelling that for too long would put me in a bad mood and give me a headache.

To the magazine’s credit, there was a politically correct ad for a bank with a woman in a wheel chair, an ad for a stevia sweetener, and 4 pages of salad recipes.

The dream life is just that…a dream

Like so much of the media we’re inundated with everywhere we turn, the magazine left me feeling inadequate, not happier than before opening its cover, and promoted unhealthy lifestyle habits.  And here’s the kicker:  these things are pushed on us as the standards that we are  supposed to aspire to and end up comparing ourselves to!

If I didn’t make and serve the right dishes for Thanksgiving dinner in a stunning dining room on a fabulously set table, I wasn’t living up to the standard of the hostest with the mostest.  If I had trouble sleeping, all I had to do was down a magical sleep inducing elixir and problem solved.  According to the  magazine, happiness could be found in a bottle of perfume.

Decades ago in another life, I used to buy into this illusive crap and would spend hours planning and preparing a Thanksgiving meal, decorating my home the “right way,” and trying to look like the women in the magazines.  While there is value in these things, I did them for all the wrong reasons from a sense of lack and needing approval.

Although I did cook some fantastic food, if I do say so myself, created a comfortable home for my family, and kept in shape out of vanity, you know what my efforts ultimately got me? Depressed, unhappy, and exhausted.  Despite my good intentions, I  never even came close to achieving a life like the ones in the magazines and never could because it doesn’t exist!

Now that I know better, I do better.  I cleaned up my eating habits, exercise and do yoga for my health and happiness (OK, maybe a little vanity still), have greatly simplified my lifestyle, and minimized my needs while  finding gratitude for the small joys that I previously took for granted.

All of these practices are proven to increase well being and happiness.  And you know what? They’ve worked for me.  After decades of depression culminating in a suicide attempt, I’m the happiest and mentally healthiest I’ve ever been.

On their deathbed, I’m pretty sure no one ever thought, “I should’ve gone with a neutral in the living room instead of that green.” or “I should’ve fixed the cranberry salad with the pistachios for Thanksgiving that year.”

When put like that, these things seem trivial – laughable even – because they are when looking at the big picture.

Gratitude is good for your health

It’s been shown that unhappy people  make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and a materialistic mindset has been linked to unhappiness and other negative emotions. Ironically, the more a person pursues happiness, the less happy they become.  The Huffington Post article, The Key Ingredients You Need To Be Happier, quotes June Gruber, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder as saying:

If your spotlight is so strongly focused on how you can become happy, that actually backfires, paradoxically, and people report feeling less happy the more they try to pursue it. Don’t focus on the pursuit of happiness; focus on other people, things you’re grateful for and doing things for others as opposed [for] yourself.

Living with gratitude and mindfulness improves health and increases happiness.  For an in-depth look at proven ways gratitude benefits you, visit The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life.  For easy ways to work more gratitude into your life , visit 14 Creative Ways To Practice Gratitude.

I love this blog  on the Momastery website, Give Me Gratitude Or Give Me Debt.

Seems to me that Thanksgiving – and everyday for that matter – should be about appreciating the good that’s present in our lives, not about the perfect dish, dining room, or light fixture.  I can guarantee you that we’d all be happier and less stressed if we adopted this philosophy.

So, this Thanksgiving instead of the holiday being a four-day weekend food-fest that marks the kickoff to the frenzied holiday shopping season, treat your brain, body, and mind with kindness and respect and find gratitude and joy in the details of the life that you have right now: family, friends, a good laugh, sunshine, a walk in the woods, the companionship of a furry friend – and maybe even the same old light fixture in the dining room.

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

How Your Brain Creates Your Reality

2444155973_3a25ca4b72_zAt the most basic level, your world is constructed by your brain. Making sense of the world and its happenings is nothing more than our individual brains’ interpretation of the signals it receives as we go about our days interacting with our environments.

Color is nothing more than cone cells in your retina being stimulated by light waves within a certain range of the spectrum. Because our brains are different, our perceptions of color are different. The sky is blue, right? No question. However, your blue is different from my blue. Maybe even very different. Neither is right or wrong. Both are blue. Your blue is just as blue to you as my blue is to me. Both are merely our individual brains making sense of the same signals.

Each of us experience the world uniquely as our brains give meaning to events and stimuli encountered determined by our physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves, others, and the world shaped by family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences past and present. These influences are typically below conscious awareness and determine how a person responds to the world, interacts in relationships, and thinks of and talks to themselves.

So, Mom and Dad, your sixth grade teacher, your best friend, and your media intake help paint your picture of reality.

Even your memory is subjective and colored by these subconscious shadows. Research has confirmed that our brains do not store everything verbatim like a computer and retrieve exact replicas. Our memories are re-creations. Your brain rebuilds a memory from a few key features and fills in the missing details based on associations and implicit and explicit knowledge.

Your brain just makes it up! A person has no way of knowing what is recalled verbatim and what is constructed.

In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He compares memories to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph.”

In your brain, a memory is made up of slight shifts in certain synapses firing in a specific sequence. Every time you recall a memory, the brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering the thought through who you are and what you know at the time of remembering.

Memory is an active and ongoing process, and according to Lehrer, “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”

Traditionally, science has viewed memories similar to unchanging words on the pages of a book on a shelf gathering dust. Not true. Experiments done at NYU in 2000 proved this false and demonstrated that the act of remembering actually changes the brain which might prove to be useful in treating PTSD and drug addictions.

Because of our differing brains, each one of us really does live in our own little world. Reality depends on what actually happens (objective) and how our brains make sense of what happens (subjective). Although there are many commonalities across our realities, it cannot be assumed that anything is the same for everyone or even remotely close to it.

Kind of freaky, right?  But, wait! Herein lies the superpower we all have. By purposefully effecting the variables determining your brain’s interpretation of the world around you, you can change your brain and life for the better.

The key is to become conscious of and take control of your thoughts and mind. Remember that your brain factors in subconscious beliefs and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world when assigning meaning to incoming stimuli and in this way, creates your reality. By becoming aware of these influences and consciously choosing which ones you buy into, allow to have impact, and intentionally inserting new influences, you can change your past and future and physically alter your brain.

Well, you can’t literally change the past, of course. By modifying your perspective and feelings about about prior events, you differ their significance in your present life which can, in turn, allows you to modify your thoughts, behaviors, and future.

Because of neuroplasticity, a scientific truth of the last decade, your repeated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors actually shape your physical brain and its functioning. By changing your mindset, you CAN change your brain and reality.

Image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/pargon/

Take Care Of Your Brain, And It Will Take Care Of You

shutterstock_44186410 (1)Your brain is involved in everything you do – every thought, word, action, behavior, and feeling – literally everything.  Most of us know less about the command center in our heads, with its amazing abilities surpassing the most sophisticated computer, than we do our smartphones.

Because your brain effects all aspects of your life from health and happiness to relationships and your ability to function in the world, it makes sense to learn about and take care of it. With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number projected to triple by 2050, brain health is of major concern to most everyone.  (See Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News)

There’s a lot of misinformation out there and persistent brain myths that just won’t go away.  (See Busting Brain Myths) Your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. So, you have to educate yourself about what is arguably the most important organ in your body.

Take care of your brain, and it will take care of you.

The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age,  by Alvaro Fernandez, Elkhonon Goldberg PhD, and Pascale Michelon PhD, separates “hype from hope in the brain health arena” by providing the latest science-based information to tell you how to optimize your brain health and function across your lifespan. Below are some brain fitness facts the authors share:

  Brain Facts

  • There is not only one “It ” in “Use it or lose it.”  The brain is composed of a number of specialized units.  Our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
  • Genes do not determine the fate of our brains.  Lifelong neuroplasticity allows our lifestyles and actions to play a meaningful role in how our brains physically evolve, especially given longer life expectancy.
  • Aging does not mean automatic decline.  There is nothing inherently fixed in the precise trajectory of how our brain functions evolve as we age.
  • We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges anytime soon.  A multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise.

 Physical Exercise Facts

  • Physical exercise improves learning and other brain functions through increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels in the body.
  • Of all the types of physical exercise, cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating – from walking to skiing, tennis and basketball –  has been shown to have the greatest effect.
  • Aerobic exercise for at least thirty to sixty minutes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best regimen.

(For more information on physical exercise and brain health, see The Fountain Of Youth For Brain And Body)

 Brain and Nutrition Facts

  • The brain needs a lot of energy:  It extracts approximately 50% of the oxygen and 10% of the glucose from arterial blood.
  • Intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.
  • Intake of vegetables (and thus antioxidants) is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Tobacco use increases risks of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Moderate doses of caffeine can increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime benefit.
  • Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of dementia.

(For more information on nutrition and brain health, see Brain Food, Brain Food For Better Memory, and Feed Your Brain)

Mental Challenge Facts

  • Mental Stimulation strengthens the connections  between neurons (synapses), thus improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning.
  • Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain be better protected against potential pathology.
  • Reading, writing, playing board or card games, doing crossword and other puzzles, and participating in organized group discussions can be cognitively challenging activities.
  • The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television.

(For more information on challenging your brain, see Mental Gymnastics)

 Brain and Social\Engagement Facts

  • Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
  • Volunteering helps lower mortality and depression rates, and slows down the decline in physical health and cognitive function.
  • Larger social network sizes are associated with better cognitive function.

(For more information on the brain benefits of socializing, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part I)

 Brain and Stress Facts

  • Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells).
  • Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress.

(For more information on the effects of stress on your brain, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part III)

 Brain Training Facts

  • Medication is not the only hope or even main hope for cognitive enhancement.  Non-invasive interventions can have comparable and more durable effects, side-effect free.
  • Not all brain activities or exercises are equal.  Varied and targeted exercises are the necessary ingredients in brain training so that a wide range of brain functions can be stimulated.
  • “Brain age” is a fiction: No two individuals have the same brain or cognitive functioning.  Consequently brain training cannot be said to roll back “brain age” by 10, 20, or 30 years.
  • Brain training is more effortful, and its effects are more specific, compared to a challenging leisure activity.

(For more information on brain training, see You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With)

summit2014_sharpbrains_hdr (1)

On October 28- 30, the Sharp­Brains will host The 2014 SharpBrains Vir­tual Sum­mit fea­turing over 40 of the world’s top sci­en­tists, inno­va­tors and prac­ti­tion­ers work­ing on evidence-based and scal­able ways to define, mea­sure and pro­mote brain fit­ness. The Sum­mit, now in its fifth year, pro­vides a vibrant and con­ve­nient forum to dis­cuss the lat­est in con­sumer and patient needs, cog­ni­tive and brain sci­ence, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, videogames, men­tal health, human cap­i­tal, life­long learn­ing, and senior services.  (Use code sharpbrain2014 for 10% off)

Six Ways To Instantly Calm Your Brain and Body

5990453566_b8919b161f_zThe human being is the only animal that causes itself suffering with its own thoughts.

And it doesn’t end there.

Then, we suffer because we suffer when getting upset about being treated unfairly, mad about having an illness, or sad about going to bed sad yet another day.  The crazy thing is that this kind of unhappiness is totally a product of our brains which is at the same time good and bad.  If your brain is causing the suffering, it can also stop it.

Over millions of years of evolution, our brains developed neural networks producing pain and anxiety under certain conditions, which while effective for ensuring survival and passing on the genes, do not leave us feeling good.

For your protection, your brain is naturally vigilant, constantly scanning its environment for threats with a built-in negativity bias – better to err on the side of caution than to be eaten.  Negative experiences hold more weight with your brain and even get stored differently.  In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:  “Your brain is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

A car cuts in front of you, a rude comment by a co-worker, or a worrisome thought about the credit card balance can be interpreted as a threat by your brain which sounds the alarm causing your body to react. Being on alert all the time produces feelings ranging from mild malaise and disatisfaction, to moderate stress and depression, to intense trauma and mental illness. [Read more…]

Think Of The Possibilities Not The Problems

7521553928_dd675a845b_k-1024x434The other day, someone said four words to me that brought tears to my eyes.

“You are a writer.”

But, but, but….I didn’t major in English in college.  I don’t have any kind of certificate saying that I’m a writer.  Writing isn’t a practical way to earn a living.

Yet, here I am again, sitting at my computer typing away on the keyboard doing what I feel most passionate about, what I’m good at, and what makes my soul happy.

I started blogging in the second year after a pill-popping suicide attempt which resulted in a serious brain injury and losing custody of my two sons who immediately moved to a different state with their Dad.  And I thought things were bad before?  Rather than finding the escape I was desperately seeking, the suicide stunt only made my situation worse — much worse.

With the brain injury, I was mentally impaired to the point that I couldn’t tell you my phone number or kids’ ages, speak understandably, or coordinate the act of moving my arms and legs to run.  Making a grilled cheese sandwich was an applaud-worthy accomplishment.

My mind wasn’t capable of playing the in-living-color, non-stop movies of my brother’s sunken eyes and jutting cheek bones before he died of AIDs, me being escorted into my house by a policewoman to get stuff to stay elsewhere because my ex-husband had filed a restraining order against me, or the countless insults his lawyer spewed at me in court as proof that I was a bad wife and mother.

My brain couldn’t obsessively wonder how I could possibly be successful selling real estate when I hadn’t worked in almost a decade and wasn’t good with numbers in the first place or if my boyfriend, who had just broken up with me, had been seeing the woman I found him having dinner with before we split.

All my brain could handle was the right here and right now.

Over the coming years as I healed and slowly came back into consciousness, my brain connected the dots and memories came flooding back along with the capability to think intelligently and reason accompanied by my old friends rumination and worry.  My challenge was to hang onto the glimpse of peace, sense of child-like wonder, and ability to exist in the present that the brain injury had given me.

Being brain injured showed me that the pain which had built up over the years before my suicide attempt, finally causing me to crumble under the weight, was totally in my thoughts.  Yes, ugly things did happen in my life, but I was the one who had been torturing myself with their memories forcing myself to relive them over and over again in the present.  They were in the past.  I could leave them there. [Read more…]

Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News

3049737121_ea4cb52557_z

Your brain can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to triple by 2050 according to the Alzheimer’s Association, brain health is a top concern for many, especially baby boomers which would include me. 

An “Alzheimer’s pill” isn’t likely to make an appearance any time soon. Some people believe that a diet free of gluten or with lots of fish, blueberries, walnuts, and kale is the answer. Others are banking on regular physical exercise, a daily Sudoku puzzle, or meditation.  While all of these things are beneficial elements of a brain healthy lifestyle, what each of our brains really needs is a personal fitness plan.

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, Professor Emeritus, co-founder of Posit Science, and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, the answer is right in front of our noses:

Contemporary neuroscience has shown us that you come from you.  Your brain is plastic. You have the power within at any age, to be better, more capable, continuously growing a progressively more interesting life.  If you’re in decline, you have great resources that can help you sustain — indeed, even regrow —  your neurological abilities in ways that can help assure that your active brain shall last as long as your physical body.  You have powers of re-strengthening, recovery, and re-normalization, even when your brain has suffered large-scale distortions that accompany developmental or psychiatric disorders, and even when it has been physically damaged in any one in any one of the innumerable ways that can befall you in your life.

If your still alive at the age of age of 50 and you live in the United States or Europe, the average life span extends into the ninth decade of life.  Just about every person reading this book can optimistically look forward to living past their 85th birthday.  You should know, then, that at that age there is roughly a 50% chance that you will be identified as senile or demented.  Other individuals in that cohort will have memory or other impairments that prevent them from sustaining an independent lifestyle.  In the latter case, the medical term is ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI).  The only thing mild about it is its name.

 The payoffs of a brain fitness regime can be enormous for an individual and for our society with the population age 65 and older expected to more than double by 2060 to 92 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Merzenich writes: [Read more…]