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The Amazing Brain

The Brain

 

The brain is the topic for psychology in the 21st century. Research in the last few decades, and the ability to look at the brain through various imaging techniques like PET scans and CAT scans, have greatly increased our understanding of this amazing organ. This new understanding is helping us devise new ways to solve problems.

The brain has often been thought of as being like a computer. But the brain is actually much more than a computer could ever be. Carla Hannaford in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, says that, because of its immense flexibility and adaptability, the brain is not really like a computer at all. Instead, each CELL of the brain is like a computer, because it receives information from so many different places. Each moment, the brain can be performing up to 400 billion actions, of which you are aware of only about 2000 (5).

John Ratey, M.D.  (Spark) states that the brain contains 100 billion neurons (neurons are brain cells), and each cell might receive input from 10,000 others, before firing off a signal. This means that there are about quadrillion potential nerve connections in the brain; the number of possible combinations is more than the number of atoms in the known universe! It is, essentially, infinite. (7)

Furthermore, if you laid all these microscopic neurons out end-to-end, they would be over two million miles long! (7)

In addition to this, the brain is always changing itself in response to new learning. As the brain stores information, the brain cells grow what look like branches, which become an incredibly complex web of communicating cells. Dr. Caroline Leaf estimates that each brain cell is capable of growing 70,000 branches, which means that you have approximately three million years worth of storage space for information in your brain –  you will never run out of room!

And Dr. Daniel Amen, in his book Use Your Brain to Change Your Age, states that “a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains a hundred thousand neurons and a billion connections all communicating with one another.” Some computer!

What does all this mean for us? Well, for one thing, the incredible potential and flexibility of the brain means that there is an almost infinite potential for solving any problems we face. The production of brand new brain cells continues throughout life, and into advanced age. Carla Hannaford estimates that 60,000 new nerve cells grow in the brain each day. (4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping your brain young

How to keep your brain young, alive and active: 1) learning new things, either from classes and books, or learning new skills, like sports, games or hobbies; 2) getting exercise; 3) proper nutrition and hydration (water): The brain is like an electrical system, and needs hydration in order to send messages back and forth. Most of us walk around without enough hydration for optimum brain functioning. 4) Reduce stress as much as possible. Remember: it’s not just the level of stress, but how we choose to react to it, that makes the difference.  Too much stress over a long period of time can actually damage the brain, so any way you can minimize its effects is beneficial.

As for the exercise option, consider this: Hannaford cites a study where older people did 10% better on mental tests after a four-month program of walking. This is only one of many such studies in recent years showing the benefits of exercise on mental functioning. Amazingly, seniors who danced once per week lowered their incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease by 79%; and seniors who played a musical instrument lowered their chance of Alzheimer’s Disease by 69%! Regular physical activity have also been found to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s Disease by half (3).

This should not be all that surprising. Physical activity releases NGF, nerve growth factor, which is responsible for the growth of new brain cells. Exercise also released the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has been found to be low in those diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and ADHD (3). We are still learning so much. But what is clear is that there is a lot we can do to protect and rejuvenate our brains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Change Habits

John Arden in his book, Rewire Your Brain, gives a very good description of how the brain functions and how to apply our new knowledge to a variety of personal and emotional problems. One very important point is that, as we learn, the brain actually develops new connections, which solidify with practice, and this allows us to develop new knowledge or a new skill. Before these connections are made, doing the task – whether it be learning the multiplication tables or playing a sport – can seem difficult and frustrating. Through practice, however, the brain connections become stronger, until the point where suddenly the task becomes easy.

We have all had the experience of suddenly being able to do something easily, like riding a bicycle or driving a stick shift car. What is interesting is that this principle can be applied to any skill. You can also sharpen your memory through practice.

This strategy can even be applied to the social arena. There are parts of the brain now known as the “social brain,” which enable us to empathize with others, form relationships, and communicate. By practicing these kinds of skills, we can also get better at them. The problem is that most people who are socially uncomfortable tend to avoid social situations, and therefore become less adept at them and less comfortable than before. With motivation and persistence, even problems like chronic social discomfort can be overcome.

And therein lies the key. If you have the motivation and the persistence, you can overcome problems that you might have thought unsolvable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

1. Amen, Daniel, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age (2012) New York, New York: Crown Publishing Group, Random House, Inc.

2. Arden, John, Rewire Your Brain (2010) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

3. Hannaford, Carla, Playing in the Unified Field: Raising and Becoming Conscious, Creative Human Beings (2010) Salt Lake City, Utah, Great River Books.

4. Hannaford, Carla, Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head (1995) Alexander, NC: Grand Ocean Publishers.

5. Leaf, Caroline, Who Switched Off My Brain? (2007) Dallas, TX: Switch on your Brain USA LP.

6. Ratey, John J., Spark The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

7. Siegel, Daniel J., The Developing Mind, 2012, New York: The Guilford Press.