Happy New Year from Sapien Labs! Make your new year’s resolution to change your brain and grow your grey matter.
Unlike our liver or spleen, which stay more or less static across our lifetimes, the brain is a pulsing organ of activity remodeling itself constantly in response to stimulus from the outside world. So just about every kind of behavior or activity probably changes it somehow (see A Changing Brain is a Normal Brain). Still some things have been better studied than others. So here are some decidedly good things to do in 2017. We will admit that none of what is on the list is particularly surprising but what if you could measure the changes in your own brain? That would be kind of cool. So here’s our list or brain changing resolutions.
Meditation has been practiced for centuries – and those who practice claim that it could turn the meanest of us into someone more peaceful. Indeed new studies show that meditation has quantitatively measurable effects on the brain. A Harvard study for instance observed a huge difference in the brain of people before and after starting and 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program. MRI scans were performed 2 weeks prior and after the program and the changes in the brain were absolutely astonishing: there was an increase in gray-matter density in the hippocampus – an important structure related to learning and memory; they also observed a decrease in gray-matter in a stress-related structure known as the amygdala. There are of course dynamical changes as well with reports of increased alpha wave activity and such.
Exercise is good for your health – this is a known fact. It helps to lose weight, lower blood pressure and improves your health in general. But maybe its most important effect is on the brain. How? Well, firstly exercise has the ability to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels in the brain. More blood vessels means more oxygen and nutrients in the brain. A well fed brain is a happy brain. Here again, neuroimaging studies have shown structural changes in the brain’s gray-matter – with an increase of it in brain structures associated with memory, learning, motor function and reward – like the hippocampus! Exercise was also shown to counter the shrinkage observed in the hippocampus of older people – which means that exercise literally makes your brain look younger for longer! And once again, exercise seems to affect the dynamics as well with again – increase in alpha activity.
Sleep deprived people are more prone to stress, have slower reflexes, impaired memory and concentration. And there is a correlation between lack of sleep and depression. Recent studies have been trying to see what happens in our brain during sleep that is so important. The brain doesn’t shut down during sleep, but instead seems to be renewing itself and “cleaning the house”. Electrophysiological studies have shown that neuronal activity patterns found during a learning task while awake were repeated in the brain during sleep suggesting that sleeping helps to consolidate memories. There is also active neuronal communication between hippocampus and neocortex during sleep. Since the neocortex is responsible for long term memory, while hippocampus is responsible for short term memory, sleep might be important to transfer our memories to a safe place to be remembered later. During sleep, neurons also get “cleaned” and dispose the by-products of metabolism that accumulates during their activity. While we are sleeping, without the task of making sense of the constant barrage of sensory stimulus, our brain is in a frenzy trying to consolidate memories, doing a bit of spring cleaning, and even regenerating. Sleep has also been shown to revert connectivity changes created by learning over the course of the day and sleep deprivation changes your brains connectivity patterns pretty substantially – for the worse. EEG studies show increased slow wave activity during wakefulness in sleep deprived folks which is not awesome.
Learn More Stuff, Practice Stuff
Learning is probably the most significant enabler of brain plasticity (and vice versa). While we are learning new neuronal pathways are being created in our brain, so that we can indeed learn and of course repetition helps nail it all down. College education has been shown to have all sorts of structural and functional benefits such as increased thickness of cortical grey matter that protects against cognitive aging (read about that here). Learning different skills can also alter things pretty dramatically. An expert musician, for example, will have more gray matter in brain regions responsible for playing the instrument. Taxi drivers in London have a larger hippocampus, because it is responsible for acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. You can read more about that here. So, as you learn anything your brain will modify itself to become better at it!
So go out quick and get an EEG headset and see how these new year resolutions change your brain. Not sure about what device to get or how – read these posts Taking Neurotechnology out of the Lab and Emotiv EPOC and OpenBCI: Style and Function and Citizen Science and EEG.