November is the month to be thankful for the family and friends in our lives and for the country we live in.
We should also be thankful for the brain we have, the command center of our growth, happiness and intellectual development.
But merely being thankful does not fulfill our responsibility to develop and improve what we have. For example, appreciating America includes the responsibility to vote for the best available leaders. Similarly, appreciating the brain includes the responsibility to develop its capabilities.
Even though the brain is an organ, it functions like a muscle. When we stimulate our brain, neurons formulate synapses and make us smarter. And similar to a muscle, when we neglect our brain or abuse it with tobacco and alcohol, it atrophies and degenerates.
Evidence-based habits that stimulate brain growth include:
Exercising: Exercise stimulates oxygen-rich blood to the brain area, which encourages cell development and the growth of synapses.
Healthy eating: A Mediterranean-style diet (fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil and plant-source proteins) protects against cognitive impairment and dementia. Combining healthy eating with exercise can produce lean body mass, another brain stimulator.
Reading: Reading fiction stimulates brain growth by transporting us into worlds and images of characters, conflict and comic relief. Nonfiction offers images of new learning experiences. The brain thrives on new experiences.
Single tasking: We now have a body of evidence supporting the inefficiency of multi-tasking — even though working on multiple projects is regularly required in school and the workplace. The brain functions most effectively when power is focused on one project. When brain direction is diverted on multi-tasking, less power is available for any single project. Though we may be responsible for multiple projects, the brain works most efficiently when we individually focus in two to three-hour time blocks.
Exploring nature: The early evolution of the brain, nearly 7 million years, included approximately 10 miles of daily walking, exploring nature looking for food and shelter and avoiding animals looking for snacks. The sights, sounds and patterns of nature continue to stimulate humans.
Maintaining emotional stability: Controlling emotional extremes causes less stress and decreases the risk of cognitive decline. Stress is part of life, but maintaining stress within a healthy range contributes to a healthy brain. Emotional stability is also controlled with exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep.
Sleeping: Sleep to the brain is similar to rebooting your computer daily, which reorganizes faulty files and restarts with a fresh organization. The brain needs sleep to archive and clarify memory and strengthen memory wiring. Our workplace and school culture lacks acceptance of short afternoon naps common in many European countries.
Practicing the arts: Participation in the arts elicits passion, which stimulates brain growth. The brain is stimulated by creative activities such as drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument and performing in a play.
Protecting the head: We have one head and one brain; protecting it is a common sense no-brainer (pun intended). Mild and moderate head injuries can cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. Value your head and protect it appropriately when participating in sports, riding recreational vehicles and climbing. Seatbelts prevent head injuries. Avoid diving into swimming pools.
Stimulating the brain provides the capacity to fulfill responsibilities to our friends, family and country.