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It’s brain awareness week and while the irony of the need for the reminder to be aware we have a brain is never lost on me, it’s a great time to celebrate the remarkable discoveries that continue to be unearthed about this remarkable organ that provide us with conscious thought, the ability to love and laugh and to continually challenge and explore our knowledge of how we think, learn and remember.

Having grown up at a time when it was believed that the brain was hard-wired, incapable of change and once we completed our cognitive development around the age of 24, we were all destined to endure the slippery slope to our inevitable cognitive decline and ultimate senility, it’s good to know some of our previous beliefs have been shown to be completely untrue.

This might have plunged some into the depths of despair and questioning “why bother then?” (But remember I was brought up in the UK where it was considered normal to accept that things were generally bad, the weather worse, but you just got on with it.)

But from that point something remarkable happened, technology evolved allowing scientists and researchers to do something that had never been possible before, to peep inside our living neural anatomy, catapulting neuroscience and those expounding positive psychology into the mainstream.

The more curious we were, the more discoveries were made, delighting and enthralling our new love affair with the human brain. Giddy with our new knowledge and understanding scientists continue to tantalise us advising we’ve only just begun to tap into what the human brain is truly capable of, and I for one can’t wait to learn of these future discoveries.

So what’s new on the brain front? Lots and here are just five things to consider and relate to how this can make your life and our world a better place to part of.

1. High cortisol levels are associated with poorer memory and loss of brain volume.

 Worse than the film “Honey I shrank the kids” too much cortisol in our system isn’t just bad for our health it possibly shrinks brains too. Yikes! While it’s easy to put this all down to stress, researchers suggest this may be more to do with higher levels of inflammation. They aren’t willing to name stress as the culprit until they have more evidence on the table.

The researchers examined data from the Framingham Heart Study noting how those in the top 1/3 for high cortisol levels had an associated reduction in brain volume and worse performance on memory tests.

We need to remind ourselves that stress per se is not harmful; indeed it is a powerful survival strategy that has served us well across our evolutionary history. However it’s being exposed to severe chronic stress is damaging, where toxic levels of the stress hormone cortisol damages our synaptic connections and inhibits neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. 

The implication is that stress management is important for better brain health and function. This can be effectively achieved by putting into place those regular activities that give you pleasure and make you feel calm such as different forms of relaxation techniques, meditation, listening to music or getting out to exercise in a green space.

2. We need good quality sleep to keep our brains clean.

Having been brought up “proper,” I know how important it is to wear clean undies every day in case I get run over by a bus. We now know this need for cleanliness extends to our brain and sleep. Sleep is the time when the brain has all its trash carried out. The recent discovery of the brain’s glymphatic system revealed for the first time how when we are in the land of nod, the spaces between our brain cells expands allowing that extra zoosh of intracerebral fluid to wash out all the grots, a bit like the fishmonger hosing down the wet floor at the end of a busy day.

The importance of this has been linked to the maintenance of good brain function and explains why poor sleep is thought to be associated with the increased risk of cognitive decline and other neurodegenerative disorders.

This is why at a time of increasing bedtime procrastination; keeping regular sleep habits can be a brain saver for our future mental and cognitive wellbeing.

3. Stronger muscles equate to stronger brainpower.

While getting a physical workout has long been known to be good for our heart and body, it’s also recognised as essential for better brain health and function. In addition to the 150 minutes of aerobic Huff N’Puff, that’s recommended every week, adding in a couple of weight or resistance training sessions has also been shown to be highly beneficial to strengthening executive function.

At a time when many of us spend more time sitting on our backsides than asleep in our beds, the message is clear, for an improved mood, memory and thinking skills it’s time to move more and sit less.

Whether you’re using a set of dumbbells or a couple of tins of baked beans, working those muscles regularly is a great way to future proof your brain.

4. We can achieve more by slowing down and doing less.

While this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s true.

The problem being that in our haste to keep up with everything, we’ve bought into the idea that driving ourselves to go faster and drinking more coffee is the best solution to manage our need for speed.

Not so, just as the small boy discovered when he slipped and fell after running along the wet surface alongside the swimming pool despite the warning to “Walk don’t run!” Slowing down our mind and quietening the monkey chatter in our heads is the best way to retain clarity of thought, focus on our priorities and get more done.

Many (including myself) advocate the benefits of the various forms of meditation to achieve this. One study reported how “Meditation training can enhance various cognitive processes, such as emotional regulation, executive control and attention, particularly sustained attention.”

Sure meditation isn’t for everyone and if the thought of it is enough to make you want to pull out your toenails one by one, there are alternatives, like breathing exercises.

Ridiculously simple and yet very effective, choosing to consciously slow down your rate of breathing influences your vagal tone leading to a slower pulse rate and calmer thoughts.

In a world that is getting more complex and complicated by the day, it’s reassuring to discover how something as simple as controlling your breath can have a profound positive effect on our brains.

5.  Conscious choice is the way to greater fulfillment and happiness.

While perusing the latest research into the brain science and psychology I’ve noticed that, just like choosing how to direct our breath can make us more calm and effective, making the conscious choice to take action and engage with those activities that boost our positive emotions and behaviours reconnects us to our sense of purpose, giving greater meaning to our lives and assists us to experience greater happiness.

Our greatest gift is our self-awareness and knowing we always have a choice.

We cannot change our genes or alter our experiences of the past but we can choose not to be defined by those and find our own path to be the better version of ourselves and, importantly, to know we are “enough.”

What I love about all our new understanding of the brain science is how this often serves as a reminder of what we already intuitively knew. We are human, imperfect, flawed and vulnerable which is great news because this means there is always room for improvement. Our amazing plastic brain is always capable of adapting to change, meaning we can always upskill or upgrade through our conscious choice of focus.

While there is a lot of fear and uncertainty being expressed about our future, and what our new technologies and AI might mean to our continuing relevance and existence, I believe there is much to be excited about and can’t wait to see how our continuing journey into this final frontier unfolds.

Brain awareness is just the beginning.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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