Did you know that women have 70,000 thoughts per day and one person's brain generates more electrical impulses each day than all the telephones in the world combined?
In Brain Fitness for Women, health writer Sondra Kornblatt offers an entertaining look at how women's brains work: the physiology of women's brains, new research in neuroscience, the differences between women's and men's brains, and how women's brains age.
Kornblatt offers fun facts (yep, that chocolate you're craving does boost cognitive function), tips (your brain wants a glass of water in the morning), and advice (forget multitasking, the brain can only process one thing at a time) for women who want to keep their minds in tiptop shape. She examines how hormones, the environment, exercise, stress, food, aging, and even friendship affect the brain, and offers strategies for keeping your brain on its metaphorical tiptoes at any age.
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About the Author
Sondra Kornblatt is a health writer and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is the author of A Better Brain at Any Age (16,000 copies sold), Restful Insomnia, and Brain Fitness for Women, published by Conari Press. She lives in the Seattle area. Visit her at www.brainfitnessforwomen.com.
Read an Excerpt
BRAIN FITNESS for WOMEN
Keeping Your Head Clear and Your Mind Sharp at Any Age
By Sondra Kornblatt
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2012 Sondra Kornblatt
All rights reserved.
The Weary Brain
A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up.
Erma Bombeck, humorist
Women are overloaded.
Need proof? Look at the covers of magazines in the grocery line for the long list of things we "should" attend to.
Lose 11 pounds in 7 days. Exfoliate your skin. Buy the latest fashions. Get a flat stomach. Organize your garage. Six tips to get ahead at work. Save for retirement. Latest smart investments. Five sexy ways to make your man love you. Eat right for your unborn baby. Parenting the terrible twos. Help your children read in just ten minutes a day. Get your teens to church. Find your best new smart phone. Beware of toxins in your furniture. Choose the right Botox doctor. When to bikini wax in the winter. Cook healthy quick meals. Build a compost bin. Care for your mother across the country. Stay fit through all ages.
We're living in a world so fast paced, with so many expectations, it's really crazy. There's a limit to what the nervous system can handle, and most of us are way over the limit. With demands coming from all sides, we feel like we're going to lose our minds—and perhaps our brains too.
Your brain is the center of your stormy life, but it is not like the quiet, calm eye of a hurricane. Your brain is more like a boat in a harbor, whipped around in winds and cross currents, banging against the pier, held by ropes that are straining against the stress.
You can hear it in your language: you say you forgot a parent-teacher conference because of brain fog, missed a party because you were brain fried, can't retrieve the name of a book author because of a brain fart, or procrastinate learning a new telephone system at work because your brain is toast.
Poor brain. It has to orchestrate everything: muscles, hormones, digestion, mood, speech, sleep, memory, dreams, compassion, emotions, actions, and stress.
Even though it's doing all that, it's easy to take the brain for granted. You frequently don't give yourself the things your brain needs to function well: good foods, exercise, stimulating challenges, a nontoxic environment, quiet time, nature, bigger perspectives, emotional care, friends to talk with, and respect for what it's doing.
There's only so much you can change outside, but you can change what you do, including how you support the brain.
Taking care of your brain can change your life.
You and your brain need care to stay sane in this crazy world. When you support your brain, it has more resources to handle what's expected of it. You'll be more relaxed about your overwhelming to-do lists. You'll also know how to stop blaming yourself and your brain for not handling the impossible. Instead, you'll support your brain in order to get the best from it—and from your life.
Brain Fitness for Women shows you holistic ways to sustain your brain—more than just clever games that stretch your cognitive ability, like most brain-fitness books focus on. Your cognitive ability is just one part of your brain, and there are many factors that influence our brains every day: toxins, information overload, overwhelming emotions, and hormone changes.
You'll learn what revives the brain, including exercising, volunteering, socializing, and spending time in nature. Brain Fitness for Women shares the latest on the brain and food choices, learning, memory help, and meditation. You'll also read about:
Triggering biophelia (attraction to nature) in your house;
Myths about male and female brains, and what really makes them different;
Myths about preventing Alzheimer's and what really helps;
Toxins in your cosmetics and how to avoid them;
How both movement and stillness improve your brain.
Some techniques may be new to you; some you may have forgotten. Some may be small steps; some may be big leaps. In all cases, the aim is to help you form a new relationship with your brain—and your life.
This book will help you appreciate and love the miracle under your skull, one that extends via communication systems throughout your body to the tips of your fingers and toes. Treat yourself and your brain in the same way you would a new love on your first dates—good dinner, stimulating activities, long walks, and quiet moments just being together.
When you care for your brain using the tips in this book, you will support how it functions, understand its human limitations, and foster a long and healthy partnership with your unique genius. (And happily, all the ways that support the brain also support the body.) The best part of your brilliant neural phenomenon: despite all the ups and downs, it can be grateful for the blessing of being alive.
So let's turn away from the headlines in those women's magazines and learn how to revive our brains and make them fit for us, in all dimensions.
Does Your Brain Know It's a Girl?
With modern parts atop old ones, the brain is like an iPod built around an eight-track cassette player.
Sharon Begley, journalist
If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will chose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base.
Dave Barry, humorist
By the time my daughter was eight, she was pretty blasé when people mistook her for a boy, which was a fairly common occurrence. After all, my daughter usually wore a baseball (not softball) uniform or comfortable clothes from the boys' department—not pink or purple clothes with short, useless sleeves and lace. Her hair was short, her style was brisk, and it was perfectly logical that sales clerks, strangers in the park, and even new parents at school would assume she was a boy.
Even though it wasn't easy for strangers to tell that my daughter was a girl, she knew she was one. And even though it's not easy to tell if a young brain (in a lab, without the body) belongs to a boy or girl, the brain knows what it is—at least as far as basic reproduction. Beyond that, there are plenty of questions and plenty of opinions about whether our actions are hardwired into the gender of the brain.
We'll look at the brain and sex in this chapter and the next, after we understand a little bit about the miracle everyone has inside their skull.
The Basic Brain
The brain is the most complex structure on earth. The physical brain—consisting of mostly water (about 78%), plus fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—can sense the outside and inner world, create thoughts and feelings, keep you breathing and pumping blood, and discover new ways to relate to the world. The brain is mind-boggling.
To understand the components of the awesome brain, let's create a model using your hands. Make two fists, touching the first knuckles together and keeping your thumbs parallel. Your combined fists are about the size of a brain.
Now, imagine that between your fists is a ball of bread dough about the size of a tennis ball; inside the dough are two shelled almonds and two shelled walnuts, one of each within the dough in either fist. This dough is your limbic system, the oldest part of your brain; it supports basic brain functions, including emotion, behavior, and long-term memory. The two almonds together are your amygdalae, which govern your emotions and fight-or-flight fear response. The two walnuts represent your thalamus, the center for sensory and motor functions.
Now bend your arms so your elbows point to the floor and your knuckles point to the sky. If someone put a pencil between your arms, that pencil would be your spinal cord, and your wrists would be your brain stem. The brain stem manages basic body functions, such as heart rate and consciousness (being awake or sleepy). Combine the limbic system and brain stem (the dough ball and your wrists), and you have a pretty functional brain system for animals.
But we're missing the cerebellum, which you can imagine as a big blob of dough squeezed out of the back, or pinky side, of your hand, by your wrist. The cerebellum is called a "little brain." It's like a little computer that connects and coordinates motor control, cognitive functions such as attention and language, and probably some emotional responses such as fear and pleasure. The cerebellum connects to the more complex cerebral cortex on top of the brain.
Your combined fists represent the two hemispheres of the cerebrum and their fissures (folds that increase the surface area of the brain). The thumb side is the front of the brain: the frontal lobes responsible for reasoning, motivation, and other higher brain functions that allow you to read, drive, and play Wii Fit. The middle fingers are the parietal lobes, which are responsible for touch, movement, and orientation. The backs of the hands (nearest the ears in a person, if the brain were in a head) are the temporal lobes, responsible for auditory stimuli, memory, and speech. Finally, the pinky fingers are the occipital lobes, responsible for visual processing.
You've got the whole world in your hands. But beyond this basic view are many more ways to slice and analyze the brain.
A Universe of Neurons
The field of neuroscience is now being compared with astronomy, because they both deal with unknowns of similar magnitude. You know how you feel the infinite expanse of the universe when you see a thick carpet of stars in a dark sky? That magnitude is echoed in our brains, which hold hundreds of trillions of synapses—1,500 times the number of stars that fill the Milky Way galaxy.
Our brains have hundreds of trillions of synapses—1,500 times the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
Information travels quickly in our brains—very quickly. The slowest speed that information is transferred between neurons is 260 mph. That's slightly faster than the speed of the original Bugatti EB, one of the fastest road-legal cars in the world, clocked at 253 mph.
Our brains are not only fast, but also busy. One human brain has an average of 70,000 thoughts per day and generates more electrical impulses than all the telephones in the world combined.
The most obvious magical marvels that do all this work are called neurons, the primary cells of our brain and nervous system. About 100 billion neurons live under your skull in your three-pound spongy ball of brilliance. Each neuron looks like a spindly tree drawn by Dr. Seuss and consists of three parts:
Dendrites, branches that receive input from other neurons, Cell body, which sustains the life of the cell and contains its DNA, Axon, a living cable that carries electrical impulses at very high speeds toward the dendrites of neighboring neurons.
A synapse is a junction between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of another (or it can be between a neuron and a muscle). A synapse sends electrical or chemical (such as neurotransmitter) signals, which either excite or inhibit the chance for action. Each connection creates a weak electromagnetic field that can join together with the electromagnetic fields of other neural connections. Those combined connections increase the speed, empathy, and activity between neurons that are not in direct contact.
The glia, or support cells for your neurons, are part of this electromagnetic "telepathy" of the brain. Glial cells are far more numerous than neurons, making up 90% of your brain's cells. They consume parts of dead neurons, manufacture myelin (a white neuron coating that protects the axon and increases axon impulses up to fifty times), form an immune system, provide physical and nutritional support for neurons, and even communicate with other synapses.
Science is learning more about glial cells, adding to knowledge about neurons. Half of glial cells are tiny granule cells, which hang out in the cerebellum. While the cerebellum (remember it's the "little brain" of dough squeezed out the back of your wrist) makes up only about 10% of the brain, it contains more nerve cells than all the rest of the brain combined and is one of the brain's most rapidly acting mechanisms. It connects to the highest level of the brain, the cerebral cortex, via 40 million nerve fibers. Compare that to your optic track, which uses just 1 million to take care of seeing and reading.
The cerebral cortex is our gray matter, composing about 85% of the brain; it contains the lobes (frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital). The densely packed neurons in the cerebral cortex work together to create neural networks, pathways of learning that constantly communicate and change.
Are There Limits on Neurons?
There are two conflicting stories about our neurons: (1) we shouldn't kill our brain cells because they're the only ones we've got, and (2) neurogenesis—the birth of neurons—continues throughout our lives. What's the scoop?
Until the 1960s, scientists believed that whatever neurons we had at birth were all we'd get. But about that time, experiments on rats and monkeys showed otherwise; and still other experiments on canaries showed that they developed new brain cells when they learned new songs. Researchers wanted to know if people also developed new neurons—but since it's a little tricky to dissect the brain of a learning human, they couldn't find out that way for sure.
Move ahead thirty years to the '90s, when scientists conducted research on terminal cancer patients who were given certain drugs labeled with fluorescent dyes in their medical treatment. After the patients died, their brains were examined. The examinations showed that the patients had generated new neurons—right up until death. They indicated that the human hippocampus, a memory center of the limbic system, retains its ability to generate neurons throughout life.
Researchers still have questions about neurogenesis. New neurons in rat brains travel from the hippocampus to other parts of the brain, but researchers have not yet proven whether the same thing happens in human brains. Some camps question whether the new brain cells are neurons or glial cells and what purpose they serve.
For us nonscientists, the important thing to know is that even though we get almost all our neurons at birth, our brains continue to change and grow, supporting our learning with new neurons, new connections, or both.
Connecting the Neurons
More important than how many main cells we have is how we use and connect the ones that stick around. These connections create maps (neural pathways) that constantly change as our moldable brain grows, learns, and matures. Those brain circuits that we actively maintain will remain and even grow stronger.
Your neural pathways constantly change as your brain grows, learns, and matures.
Researchers at Virginia University found that abilities based on accumulated knowledge keep increasing until age sixty. However, this study's results were based on behavior, not the biology of the brain; it also does not address the effects of practice on strengthening cognition.
When you take up a new hobby, like playing the guitar or knitting, your brain designates more cell power to this new activity. As you stick with it, the brain accommodates this new knowledge by changing or creating neural maps and maybe even assigning extra neurons to help. You go from remembering what fingers to use for the C-minor chord to just knowing it. What if you stop for a while? If you're a winter knitter, don't worry—those neural connections won't disappear over the summer. They just focus on something else. They'll be there next winter, though it might take them a little time to get their knit-purl connections back.
Practice may not always make perfect, but it does help you rearrange your neurons and connections. Don't worry about feeling dumb while you're learning. You're just ushering your neurons into place.
Excerpted from BRAIN FITNESS for WOMEN by Sondra Kornblatt. Copyright © 2012 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Jean Millican, MD ix
Chapter 1 The "Weary Brain 1
Chapter 2 Brain Basics: Does Your Brain Know It's a Girl? 2
Chapter 3 Swimming in Different Hormones Variations Beyond Brain Structure 17
Chapter 4 The Brain During Menstruation and Menopause 33
Chapter 5 The Dance of Your Body and Brain 55
Chapter 6 Creative Learning: All Work and No Play Gives Jane a Dull Brain 73
Chapter 7 Minding What Matters: How Thoughts, Emotions, and Consciousness Affect the Brain 91
Chapter 8 Food: Take Your Brain Out to Dinner 107
Chapter 9 The Brain and the Environment: Toxins-Schmoxins 131
Chapter 10 Electronics on the Brain: One Second, I Just Need to See This Text. . . 141
Chapter 11 The Brain and Community: Getting by With a Little Help From Your Friends 157
Chapter 12 Aging, Alzheimer's, and the Brain: Did I Read This Already? 157
Chapter 13 Beyond the Mind: Expanding Your Connection With Nature and Spirit 165
Chapter 14 Your Dynamic, Sparkling, Brilliant Brain 181