We used to think that intelligence is innate. Some people have it, and others just don't. The brain we’re born with is the one we’re stuck with for life.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
New and improving technologies in neuroscience are giving us deeper insight into the mysterious gray stuff between our ears. It turns out, our brains are surprisingly dynamic; we do things every single day that affect their structure and chemistry.
Below are ten of the ways that we can literally change our brains, for better or worse...
Physical activity is important for obvious reasons. However, exercise doesn’t just promote a healthier body. Recent research has shown that physical exercise also benefits your brain.
For starters, physical activity can improve your brain’s “plasticity” – a cerebral quality that affects memory, motor skills, and the ability to learn – according to a study conducted at the University of Adelaide in Australia. A small group of adults in their late 20s and early 30s participated in a 30-minute session of vigorous activity. Immediately after the session, their brains showed a significant increase in neuroplasticity.
If that’s not enough motivation to get out for run, research shows that exercise also release chemicals in the brain that make us feel happy. Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich explains that endorphins and a complicated-sounding protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) are released in the brain as you do physical exercise. These two chemicals help fight stress and promote happiness. Endorphins are also known to give a feeling of euphoria, which would explain why some people can actually become addicted to exercise.
In short, exercise makes you smarter and happier at the same time. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Sleep is an essential activity that not even science can fully explain. We know that it’s restorative, everyone does it, and a lack of it can be really bad. But researchers still struggle to understand why we sleep.
It certainly isn’t an energy-saving technique, as we only actually save roughly 50kCal over the course of an eight-hour sleep. Yet, going without sleep can make you irritable, lead to memory loss and false memories, and, in extreme cases, cause slurred speech and even brain damage.
So what happens when you sleep? Your brain gets to work archiving memories, making creative connections, and cleaning out toxins, as Huffington Post’s Carolyn Gregoire explains. Further, these benefits aren’t limited to a full night’s sleep. A short afternoon nap can provide you with a boost of energy equivalent to roughly one or two cups of coffee, as well as increased retention of facts and greater creativity.
In other words, if you’re not feeling on your toes at work or if you need some inspiration, one of the most effective things you can do is find a cozy corner and grab some rest. Just don’t blame us when your boss doesn’t believe you.
People have sworn by meditation for millennia, and for good reason. Meditation doesn’t just help you find emotional balance in your life - it actually changes your brain.
As Rebecca Gladding M.D. explained the physical process in Psychology Today. Before beginning a regular meditation habit, people tend to have strong neural connections with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, what Gladding calls the “Me Center” of the brain. As a result, they are more likely to interpret physical sensations of anxiety or fear as a personal problem, something directly-related to themselves. As a result, they are more likely to experience repeated thoughts about their lives, mistakes they’ve made, what people think about them, etc.
The “Me Center” isn’t particularly rational.
In contrast, people who meditate regularly show weaker connections with the “Me Center” of the brain and stronger connections with the lateral prefrontal cortex, or the "Assessment Center" of the brain. This helps meditators to take problems less personally and approach them more logically.
This means that, through meditation, we can become better at managing anxiety, stress, and potentially dangerous situations. In addition, the neural connections which grow stronger through meditation help promote empathy and compassion, particularly for people who are most unlike us, says Gladding.
So sitting still and trying to focus on the present moment for as little as 15 minutes per day significantly reduces stress and essentially makes you a better person overall.
4. Drinking coffee
For centuries humans have participated in the ritual of taking seeds, roasting them, grinding them up, and steeping the grounds in hot water for a quick jolt of energy. Some people won’t get out of bed without the promise of a warm cup of Joe waiting for them. But what is this energizing drink really doing to your brain?
In a post last November, I explained the fascinating science of coffee drinking. From the time you wake up until you lay down to sleep, neurons in your brain produce a curious chemical called adenosine. As adenosine is produced, it binds with adenosine receptors in the brain, causing you to feel tired and eventually fall asleep.
When caffeine enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain, it blocks the adenosine receptors. That’s what gives you the boost of energy and alertness, improved memory and cognitive performance, increased focus, and even increased accuracy of reactions.
Over time, however, your brain will begin to build up a tolerance to the drug, and you may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, increased sleepiness, lack of concentration, and irritability.
To sum it up, coffee (really, caffeine) literally changes your brain chemistry, providing you with that boost of energy and focus you need in the morning. But as with anything, it’s best in moderation. (Though, it is somewhat comforting to know it would take dozens of cups of coffee in a very short period of time to kill you.)
Ever feel yourself getting swept away in a story, imagining yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and visualizing the fictitious world around you? Getting lost in a book may have a lasting effect on your brain, says a study from study from Emory University.
A group of 21 undergrads were asked to read 30 pages of Pompeii by Robert Harris, followed by a quiz, each night for nine days. Before starting, after finishing the novel, and each morning during the 19-day study, participants were given to fMRIs.
These brain scans "revealed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language,” reports The Atlantic’s Julia Ryan.
In addition, the study showed that readers could experience something called “embodied semantics.” That’s the technical way of saying that the "brain connectivity during a thought-about action actually mirrors the connectivity that occurs during the actual action. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger some of the same neural connections as physical swimming."
That means that imagining actions as you read about them can physically alter the connections in your brain. Pretty cool stuff.
6. Listening to music
When some people want to truly focus, they seek total silence, but many turn on their music. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason behind this. Ben Greenfield explains:
When you graph the electrical activity of your brain using EEG, you generate what is called a brainwave pattern, which is called a “wave” pattern because of its cyclic, wave-like nature...When we lower the brain wave frequency…we can put ourselves in an ideal condition to learn new information, perform more elaborate tasks, learn languages, analyze complex situations and even be in what sports psychologists call “The Zone”, which is a state of improved focus and performance in athletic competitions or exercise. Part of this is because being the slightly decreased electrical activity in the brain can lead to significant increases in feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins, noroepinephrine and dopamine.
Most importantly, you can actually “force” your brain into this ideal “alpha brain wave relaxation” with the right frequency of music.
In fact, music service focus@will has partnered with leading neuroscientists to curate a selection of tunes designed to help you concentrate while working or studying. Trials carried out by the company show a 12-15% increase in focus and up to 400% longer work session time.
7. Wandering in nature
Spending time in outdoor green spaces has been linked to improvements in mood, concentration, and creativity. Now a recent study has given us some insight into the neurological processes that might be creating these benefits.
Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University, designed a study that looked at the blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with brooding. As Gretchen Reynolds explained in a New York Times article on the subject:
Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.
In his study, Bratman found that participants who had gone for a 90-minute walk in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood reported experiencing less morbid rumination and showed less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex than those who had walked along a busy highway for the same amount of time.
The study suggests that taking the time to wander in nature can in fact change your brain in ways that make you happier.
A growing body of research has clearly shown that humans are physically incapable of multitasking. Instead, the human brain merely single-tasks very quickly, switching back and forth between multiple tasks at a rate that makes you feel and believe you’re actually doing two things at once.
But you aren’t. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
If you think you spend much of your time "multitasking", you could actually be rewiring your brain – and not in a good way.
Clifford Nass, communications professor at Stanford, notes that constant multitasking actually changes the “pathways in our brains.” Your attention span is considerably shortened and your emotional intelligence is stunted. At the same time, you become worse at sorting through information and completing creative tasks.
Maybe it’s time you close out of some browser tabs and logout of Twitter for a while. Here are 19 ways to be kind to your brain by turning single-tasking into a habit.
9. Eating sugar
The average American consumes five times the amount of sugar they should be eating on a daily basis, according to Natasa Janicic-Kahric of Georgetown University Hospital. In addition to contributing to obesity and diabetes, sugar consumption also has scary effects on your brain's health.
Overconsumption of sugar may impair neurological functioning, according to a study on rats done by researchers at UCLA. As the Carolyn Gregoire of the Huffington Post reported:
Heavy sugar intake caused the rats to develop a resistance to insulin -- a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and also regulates the function of brain cells. Insulin strengthens the synaptic connections between brain cells, helping them to communicate better and thereby form stronger memories. So when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, cognition can be impaired.
In this way, eating too much sugar can impair memory and learning skills, and may even contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.
But that’s not all. Including too much of the sweet stuff in your diet has been shown to correlate with increased risk of depression. Sugar activates the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin in our brain. When continuously overstimulated, our serotonin levels begin to deplete, making it more difficult for us to regulate our mood.
10. Believing you can change your brain
Finally, it turns out that simply believing that you have the power to physically change your brain can in fact help you change your brain.
Carol Dweck explained the significance of what she called a "growth mindset" in her famous TED Talk titled "The Importance of Believing You Can Improve." To sum up her profound point, kids who are taught that they didn’t correctly solve a problem or pass a test yet showed more willingness to learn and improve than those graded on a simple pass/fail system:
Just the words "yet" or "not yet," we're finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students' mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter.
The benefits of a growth mindset aren’t limited to school children. Approaching challenges with an attitude that embraces growth and improvement can give us the grit we need to push our limits, strengthen beneficial neural connections, and create entirely new ones well into old age.
I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly comforting.
Taylor is a creator. He has a YouTube channel where he covers technology, DIY projects, and life hacks. He also hosts and produces a weekly podcast, Untethered, where anything goes.