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A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Witsby Sondra Kornblatt, Fernando Vega (Foreword by)
In A Better Brain at Any Age, Sondra Kornblatt, along with the experts she has interviewed, helps readers put their heads on straight through healthy activities for the body (exercise, healthy food consumption, and relaxation) and through speci? c activities to boost brain power like movement, eye rolls, supplements, and making environmental changes. Each of the
In A Better Brain at Any Age, Sondra Kornblatt, along with the experts she has interviewed, helps readers put their heads on straight through healthy activities for the body (exercise, healthy food consumption, and relaxation) and through speci? c activities to boost brain power like movement, eye rolls, supplements, and making environmental changes. Each of the seven chapters - Body-Mind Connection; Environmental Support; Food and Supplements; Intelligence and Learning; Memory, Learning Shortcuts, and Brain-Stretchers; Emotions and Decisions; and Meditation and Bigger Perspectives - details how that topic impacts the brain, and offers tips and highlights for readers to either delve into the book or peruse it for quick boosts. Kornblatt teaches readers how to reduce brain stress and optimize mental agility, and shares information on how the brain interacts with the body, what habits impact the brain, positively and negatively, and how to maximize learning. She provides tips to strengthen memory, cognition, and creativity so readers can function better in their active lives. A Better Brain at Any Age offers a complete plan for total brain health in an engaging and accessible way.
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A BETTER BRAIN AT ANY AGE
The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits
By Sondra Kornblatt
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2009 Sondra Kornblatt
All rights reserved.
A Short Tour of the Brain
The brain has the storage capacity of 6 million years of the Wall Street Journal.
—Greg Iles, Footprints of God
You are the proud owner of the most complex organ in the entire world: your brain. In fact, if the brain weren't so complicated, we couldn't begin to understand it. There are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the universe.
Those connections are all coordinated with each other. So when you hit a rock while riding your bike, your brain notices and acts instantaneously. Uh-oh, balance is askew, veer the torso in the opposite direction while the foot swings to the ground. The brain saved your skull, even if you scratched your leg. Meanwhile it generates memories and words so you can tell your coworkers the story.
For millennia, people have wondered how the brain works. Scientists autopsied cadavers, analyzed brain injuries, and monitored reactions to brain surgery. They located specific areas—for instance, Broca's area processes speech—but it took until the 1990s to reveal how the whole brain interacted.
Cutting-edge technology—such as functional MRIs (magnetic resonance imagings) and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans—revealed the brain in action: How exercise and meditation changed brainwaves. How creativity doesn't live just in the right hemisphere. How idle brain areas take on new uses after injury.
Keeping up with the new information is a brain booster. However, if you're pressed for time, here's a short and simple tour of the brain. (To delve deeper into how the brain works, check out A User's Guide to the Brain by John Ratey or Neuroscience for Kids at the University of Washington, at http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/index1.html.)
The Giant Walnut
You have a giant walnut under your skull—only it's pinkish-gray and soft, like custard. It's suspended in membranes and crystal-clear fluid within the hard shell of your skull.
The brain evolved from that of reptiles to mammals to humans, creating three main layers (illustrated in Figure 1.1) that surround and interact with each other.
The primitive or reptile brain (reptilian complex) is the first level, at the bottom. It includes the brain stem and the cerebellum, a strawberry-shaped clump of cells just below the cerebrum. This part controls sleep, waking, breathing, temperature, and basic automatic movements (such as heartbeat, balance, even bike riding). It also acts as a way station for sensory input—it helps evaluate safety and determine the need for quick response.
The mammalian or limbic brain (limbic system) is the second level. It develops memory and emotions for social interactions through the hippocampus, which looks like two seahorses, one on each side of the brain. Severe damage to the hippocampus can cause amnesia. The limbic system also coordinates movements and promotes group survival.
The third level is the neocortex, including the two large cerebral hemispheres, right and left. It finetunes the lower functions, creates abstract thinking, consciousness, and creativity. It's able to plan as well as react to new challenges.
The neocortex is the top layer, or gray matter, of the brain. It evolved most recently and is only found in mammals.
The Anatomy of the Brain
Within these three levels are specialized structures that work in concert.
The cerebellum at the base of the brain keeps the action, emotions, language, and memories in tune.
The cerebrum divides its function into four lobes, illustrated in Figure 1.2. The occipital lobe is the visual processing center. The parietal lobe coordinates sensory and special information to make sense of the world around you and to monitor how you relate physically to others. It interacts with language, math, body image and function, and drawing. The frontal lobe behind the forehead has intricate connections to other areas in the brain. It regulates emotions, thought, sense of self, verbal activity, and problem solving, to name a few. It produces and evaluates speech, expressions, empathy and genuineness. The temporal lobe is the auditory processing center; it makes meaning of speech and vision and is involved in memory formation. It contains the hippocampus, the brain's memory indexer.
The limbic system focuses on emotions and social bonds.
The cingulate gyrus in the midbrain directs our response to others.
Why is your brain shaped like a walnut? To maximize the thinking area. The cerebrum (the largest part of the brain) and the cerebellum (which coordinates movement and lies below the cerebrum) are coated with gray matter called the corte (Latin, meaning "bark"). The cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the cerebrum) is where most of the information processing (thinking) takes place. The cerebral cortex is huge. If you stretched it out flat it would be the size of several sheets of newspaper. Folded and wrinkled, it fits those clever neurons under your skull. The folds in the cerebral cortex increase the available surface area and gray matter, so that more information can be processed.
The cerebrum has two hemispheres (see Figure 1.3), each with some specialized functions. The left hemisphere is more analytical, specializing in language, math, and logic. The right hemisphere specializes in spatial abilities, music, visual imagery, and recognition. However, the hemispheres interact much more than was once thought. The pathway between them is the corpus callosum, a band of 200-250 million nerve fibers.
Good connections make the brain work well. Connections are made by neurons (nerve or brain cells), which transmit information through an electrochemical process. Neurons are shaped like a sapling tree: a branch of dendrites at one end receives information and an axon at the other end sends information. (See Figure 1.4.) The brain contains more than a hundred billion neurons, each with one axon and as many as 100,000 dendrites (communication transmitters and receivers). Electrical impulses release chemicals called neurotransmitters, which trigger or inhibit actions, and determine the strength of your emotional responses. Neurotransmitters flow across a synapse—a gap between neurons.
A series of individual connections create a route through your brain called a neuropathway. The more you practice something, the more you deepen neuropathways as you strengthen skills, habits, and memories—which could apply to a Bach minuet or nail-biting. When you learn something new, or when you make a change, you create new pathways. Your brain becomes more flexible and resilient.
Mirror neurons fire when you see someone performing an action—including the action of having a feeling. These mirror neurons make emotions contagious, according to Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence, so even non-baseball fans get excited when their city's team goes to the World Series.
Brain Activity and Brain Waves
As your brain moves through different activities, from concentrating to sleeping, it produces electrical fluctuations. Scientists have measured those rhythmic electrical fluctuations of the brain with electroencephalogram (EEG) and correlated them to various activities. The cycles per second are labeled with Greek letters, such as beta (active and busy) to alpha (relaxing) to gamma (meditating monks).
Until the 1990s, scientists thought your brain stopped generating new neurons as an adult. If a brain cell gave its life, these scientists said, there were no replacement parts. Now we know that at age seventy-five, you still have all the neuron connections you did at twenty-five, though lack of mental exercise may make those connections slower. Your brain continues to grow new neurons (in a process called neurogenesis), 500 to 1,000 each day.
The brain also includes trillions of glia, or supportive cells. They feed, guide, coat, and support neurons. The brain also has many vascular cells for its large blood supply that keep the neurons pumped with oxygen and glucose.
Most of these components have been know for centuries or decades. What's new is understanding how these components function.
The Working Brain
Back in the old days (when Ronald Reagan was president) scientists imagined the brain as a series of containers—like a silverware divider. Each task had its own little slot. Thinking stayed separate from feeling, memory, language, and movement.
In the 1990s, scientists used functional MRIs to detect changes in activity in the brain. Researchers discovered that the brain is more like an ecosystem than a stagnant silverware divider. All the parts interact with each other.
In fact, the brain is a self-operating system, says Dr. Nancy Andreasen in her book, The Creating Brain. A self-operating system operates like a flock of starlings: the whole group instantaneously veers to one side, then the other, without stopping for a meeting to decide what to do.
That's just what your brain does when you're falling off your bike.
Through a rapid-fire series of connections, the structures of your brain talk to each other and produce an instantaneous response that is intelligent, even though you don't have to think about it. Thanks to your brain, you can walk away from the accident with your skull intact.
Not All in Your Head The Body-Mind
Lost in thought. (Please send rescue party.)
—SLOGAN ON A T-shirt
Barbara was on a mad quest for her keys. She hunted in her pocketbook, on the counter, in her coat pockets, beneath the car seat, and in the front door. "I had them when I came in ... or was the door unlocked?" She checked her pocketbook again.
Her mind was racing. She imagined random places she had been as she came into the house. She chastised herself for being disorganized and late to her meeting. Then back to the lost keys. Barbara was disconnected from her body and couldn't focus.
"I've lost my mind."
But maybe she was so caught in her mind, she couldn't access the wisdom of her body.
What is the mind? Is it your thoughts, brain, unconscious beliefs? We usually don't think about the mind; we just take it for granted. We have to, in order to get anything done.
Still, it's worth looking at the mind, whatever you consider it to be. When you understand the mind, you navigate it better, learn more, and strengthen the brain through your increased consciousness.
We consider the 'mind' a thing—but it's not. Instead, the mind is a verb, says Dr. Karl Pribam, neuropsychology professor at Stanford Medical School. The mind is a process of mental activities: feeling, planning, remembering. And the process goes beyond the brain. The mind uses the body to function.
In fact, you have a "second brain" in your gut, with more nerve endings than you have under your skull.
The mind influences the body (you think you screwed up at work and you get a headache). The body influences the mind (a yoga class calms worried thoughts).
Here's proof of the body-mind connection: Imagine reading erotica about a hot, deep kiss. Whether it's romantic novels or porn, thoughts and images about sexuality clearly cause the body to respond.
The body also responds to thoughts about improving healing, athletic ability, and attitudes toward life. Images and attitude can lessen diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, protect against heart disease, and help with the side effects of chemotherapy.
This chapter looks at the mind, the body, and how they work together.
The Mind of the Body-Mind
You can't see the mind. But people have been dissecting it for years, in philosophy, religion, and psychology. They've discovered and labeled
Personality or id
You could also notice and label the time-twit or do-gooder in your own mind.
These concepts help you make sense of the mind. In turn, the mind makes sense of the world by creating ... concepts. Otherwise known as stories.
Stories keep stimulation from overwhelming you—or they give meaning to it. When you're waiting for a bus and searching for your bus pass, you might not see the red lights. But when you're crossing the street, those red lights are guides to your personal safety.
Stories can be true objectively or can feel true subjectively. Both forms involve physical sensations. Ever get rapid heartbeat and increased perspiration when you're sure your boss won't like your proposal? That story makes your adrenaline pump. The reality makes you smile when your boss approves the idea.
Problems arise when emotions and thoughts limit the mind. Limits can be "anxiety, negative fantasies, pessimism, and even identity with certain ideas of who we and others are," says Dr. Joan Borysenko, former director of Harvard's Mind-Body Clinic and author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
However, you can change your mind. You can create new synaptic pathways in the brain, helping its long term health. Key to changing your mind—and brain—can be focused on these three areas:
1. Alter your emotional response, which transforms the feeling of truth about a story.
2. Shift your thoughts and beliefs, substituting new images for fears and limits.
3. Change your body through exercise, sleep, and even laughter.
Boosters: Change Your Mind
These boosters engage the mind's perspective. Some attend to changing thoughts. Others work with emotions and the unconscious mind. Many are addressed in more depth in chapters 3, 4, and 8.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) experts say that thoughts trigger emotions and behavior, though others debate whether thoughts automatically come first. However, CBT tools can alter automatic negative thoughts (often called ANTs), give new perspectives, and release mental tension. It may take a few months of practice to alleviate an "irrational thought process," say CBT practitioners.
Track and change your thoughts by keeping a diary. Note events that trigger uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
Reframe incidents to provide a new perspective. Reframing is a natural process you move through as external circumstances and inner stories change. For example, if you have a small itch on your head, no big deal. But if your daughter's friend has head lice, each small itch becomes a fear of finding pests imbedded in your fingernails. Reframing can also be a conscious choice, giving more options in life. If you worry that your house is messy, reframe from seeing yourself as a slob to someone who cares; you spent time to read to your daughter instead of cleaning.
Snap a rubber band on your wrist when you notice a thought pattern you want to change. Then remind yourself to substitute a more comforting thought.
Have a dialogue with yourself. Talk back if you find yourself sunk in a negative story. Create a positive to balance the negative rather than trying to defeat it.
Remind yourself that you are great, everyone has personality quirks, and you are loveable.
Talk to your inner child or fearful self. Remind it that you are capable and can get help from others.
Address judgments and blame. Blame is a spiral of thoughts that perpetuates ongoing anger and frustration. Since you can't change others, focus on changing your own point of view. Ask yourself questions to determine if blame is a distracting story of your mind. These questions, based on the work of Byron Katie, are detailed in chapter 4.
Notice what you let into your mind. Buddhist meditation teacher Sally Kempton says that when we dwell on a lot of negative thoughts, we tell "ourselves stories about everything that's wrong with us and the world." It's not fun to live in that kind of world. Change the hold negative ideas have on your mind. Replace them with their opposites. For instance, if your father-in-law drives you crazy with nit-picking, remember that he is kind to his grandkids.
Another method is to spend 20 minutes repeating positive thoughts, in a technique called Metta or Loving-Kindness Meditation in Buddhist practice. You wish peace for yourself and those around you, even people in the news with whom you get upset.
Short-Term Dynamic Therapy is intensive psychotherapy that addresses blocked emotions and limiting beliefs. Techniques focus and intensify traditional psychotherapy, achieving structural changes in briefer time periods.
Excerpted from A BETTER BRAIN AT ANY AGE by Sondra Kornblatt. Copyright © 2009 Sondra Kornblatt. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sondra Kornblatt is a medical and wellness writer and co-author of 365 Energy Boosters. She developed the Restful Insomnia program to help people renew during sleepless nights-find more at restfulinsomnia.com. Sondra lives in the Pacific Northwest with her two children.
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