Use It or Lose it – Your mind is a muscle, if you don’t use it and give it something positive or proactive to do, at the very least it gets up to mischief!
You have a huge and amazing intellectual resource. To simplify a very complex system, higher Cortex or intellect is the part of our brain we developed which made us so successful as a species, the bit we evolved that other animals didn’t, which is why you don’t see them driving around in cars or tweeting from their mobile phones and why planet of the apes is luckily fiction, not fact (or at least we hope so!).
But did you know that you can actively increase intelligence and the performance of your brain by exercising, both physically and mentally.
In his book ‘Spark’, Dr John Ratey presents findings from a study which demonstrated that running a mile every morning dramatically improved test results amongst high school children in the States. There are also numerous studies which show how keeping active can help fend off the symptoms of early onset dementia and Alzheimers.
Have you ever wondered why our brains look wrinkly (probably not!) – but just so you know and can astound people with your knowledge – the wrinkles are a way in which we can increase the area and size of the brain without our skulls getting any bigger and as you learn, exercise that mind muscle of yours and it grows, so your wrinkles deepen.
But, we can also affect how well our brain works with intellectual exercise. Our brain loves learning, it thrives on it and is hungry for knowledge, no matter how old we are. They used to think that our brain was mature by our mid-twenties, but now we have MRI scanners, we can see that our brain continues to grow new brain cells and change the way its connected right throughout our lives.
How and what with, is completely influenced by us, by the way we think and how we think. We have the choice to positively or negatively influence how our brain is wired together. There’s a saying in neuroscience -‘ neurons that fire together, wire together’ meaning that how we think about things or what we practice becomes a permanent habit.
Think of a path across a field; if you follow the same path every day, the grass wears away and the path becomes permanent. It’s exactly the same with practicing skills and ways of thinking, if you do the same thing over and over again, the neurons which are firing in your brain in the process of the action or thoughts become a permanent link or network of how to do something.
So if you are practicing a new skills, discipline or learning about a new subject, wonderful! but think about what is happening if you have a habit you don’t want or you frequently think negatively or worry about something you can’t control for instance – you will be affecting how your neurons (brain cells) are wired together and making it habitual and permanent.
What we so often fail to realise is that we have control over this, we can determine what we think about, how we think, what we do and what we learn.
Our brain has evolved over millions of years and at the centre of your brain is the limbic system, the primitive bit responsible for the automatic flight or fight mechanism and it has a predetermined bias to assume the worst for our survival. If you were back in those primitive times, you would automatically assume there was danger around the next corner or in that dark cave. If you assume danger and act accordingly, but you’re wrong, no harm done; but if you assume there is no danger and there is, you only do that once and we probably wouldn’t be here today. It’s this tendency to assume the negative which has kept us alive and flourishing and what we call the Default Mode Network today.
Which is all very well for survival around tigers, lions and bears, but not very helpful for our every day modern life, but it still works in that way and unfortunately you can’t go back and update it. Being aware of this default helps because when we don’t know something our brain will have a tendency to fill in the blanks with negative stuff, but we can be aware that its our imagination which has filled in the blanks and its not real.
Another effective way is having interesting and engaging things in our life which captivates our mind, learning new things, enjoying activities, hobbies and expanding our mind. It’s the mental exercise for our mind.
You could think of it like this:-
Physical exercise protects the brain cells we have and grows new ones.
Mental exercise makes the connections between brain cells we have or new ones we produce.
If we use our mental powers negatively, we produce negative networks which refer back to the primitive part of our mind responsible for fight or flight and starts to produce stress hormones such as adrenalin or cortisol.
The message is – be mindful about how you are thinking and realistic – if you find yourself thinking negatively, it is entirely possible that your imagination has filled in some blanks and it’s not real.
But you have complete control over your mind and you can use your brain how you use.