Train your brain can have many meanings. It might mean training memory for one individual, for an athlete it would mean something entirely different. For an individual who has had a stroke, or a traumatic brain injury, training his brain will mean something else entirely.
There is wonderful new work going on in the train your brain arena currently. (See Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself."
For a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, train your brain will mean capturing and changing automatic thoughts, those words that flash through our heads right before or during a feeling.
A Buddhist or a monk will have a different idea of training ones brain, an idea that might involve long periods of meditation or chanting or controlled breathing, and some of those folks have achieved astonishing physiological results.
For a martial artist or a dancer, brain training involves breathing, and movement, and attention for thousands of repetitions.
People seeking to replicate Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" would practice his techniques. (And what does Nathaniel Hill advise in his famous book, "Think and Grow Rich"?)
A shaman will want to train his/her brain to be able to travel to other realities, and musicians, from the first tribal folks beating out a rythm on a hollow log to the most sophisticated classical orchestra, (and do not forget Jerry Garcia), will have another idea about brain training, and its purpose.
But no matter what results you are seeking with your brain training, those results always involve moderating cellular activity, and then getting a habit built.
There are three things we as humans can manage, our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior (the way my body moves).
Do you feel hopeless when you think about managing your breathing, or paying attention to your thoughts (how do you do that while driving your car?), or practicing your dance step thousands of times?
Practical Brain Training Means Training Your Attention.
Most of us think that training your brain involves some esoteric methodology which will demand that we remove ourselves from main- stream western civilization.
Not necessarily so.
For most of the history of human kind, brain training involved long periods of practice, perhaps in a monastery cell, or a cave, chanting, or praying.
However technology is helping us both speed up and perhaps democratize this process.
For example, biofeedback is providing us the ability to train brain waves and/or heart rate variability, very basic processes to life. Or hand temperature, for example.
I can learn to pay attention to and manage beta brain waves for example, which cycle between 15 and 42 cycles PER SECOND, or heart rate variability, which refers to the amount of change in time between heart beats; both physiological processes usually not available to the conscious mind.
Heart rate variability biofeedback is a new field, perhaps 10 years old, and EEG Biofeedback is dates primarily to the 1960's.
Believe it or not, when I learn to pay attention to the small, constant, shifts in my feelings or thoughts or behaviors, I am well on the way to clearing the static out of my neural network, which allows me to make quicker clearer decisions about my choices. That is Peak Performance. Conversely, I can go off my diet, or relapse, or decide not to exercise just as fast.
Csikszentmihalyi mentions that the central nervouse system that we process sound waves, photons, pressure, smell, and taste inputs at the rate of 7 bits every 1/18th second. That is 126 bits of information every second. By the way, most of the time we process that data very effectively. (1/18th second is twice as fast as I can blink my eyes).
Paul Ekman says that we respond to facial expressions in 1/25th second, and that some facial expressions are cross cultural, like contempt. In other words, I will respond to a look of contempt from a teenager who lives in the jungle of Sumatra whom I have never seen before just as strongly as if the contemtp was expressed by my own children.
In the steps of AA, the 11th step advocates seeking knowledge of a your higher powers design for you through daily prayer and meditation, which involves listening for the still, quiet voice from within. (Very seldom does one see the burning bush, so that vision will be revealed internally)
I am suggesting that you can be constantly open to that still, quiet voice by managing your attention to your heart and brain and breathing.
I think brain training should be about attending to and managing the noise in the net.
I like to start my anger management classes by asking people where they see me. Most folks answer with some disdain, like I was stupid,..."well, right over there"....
My response is no, that is incorrect, then I ask them where they see me, and most are stumped. I smile smugly too.
Then I explain that their experience of vision happens entirely in their own visual cortex, in the back of the brain.
We repeat this for each sense, .
I then explain to them that their entire experience of reality, no matter what sense we are speaking to, is processed only in their own head, and that they are responsible for it and any interpretation.
No one can make them feel anything, or do anything, because I do not really exist outside of your head. (You can say that their is an object across the room you have learned to call Mike Logan).
This is a great way to put an end to the victim stuff, and move into surviving and thriving information.
From Dr. Larry McLeary, four areas of brain training that we can attend to; A) Appropriate nutrition.
The major fuel the brain consumes is glucose. The earliest sign of impending dementia and Alzheimer disease (AD) is a decrement in the ability of the brain to use glucose efficiently. Based on this observation, some neuroscientists are referring to AD as Type 3 diabetes because of the inability to appropriately use glucose in that disorder. This makes sense because people with diabetes have a four-fold increase in AD.
The brain is a fatty organ. The most important fats are those in the nerve cell membranes whose presence keeps them flexible. These are the long chain omega 3 fatty acid molecules found in fatty, cold-water fish and arachidonic acid (a long chain omega 6 fatty acid). These are both delicate fats and as such can oxidize easily (meaning they can become rancid).
Thus, we should include additional dietary components that provide free radical fighting activity to protect them against oxidation. Based on these observations, I recommend a diet containing fatty fish, veggies and salads, non-starchy fruits (like berries) - that are high in free radical fighting compounds - and nuts. Addition of specific nutritional supplements may be helpful for the elderly, those under chronic stress, in the context of medications that lower critical nutrient levels in the body, or when dietary quality varies.
B) Stimulating brain activity
To increase neuroplasticity (the continual ability of the brain to "rewire" itself) and neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells), brain stimulation is vital. All types count including school work, occupational endeavors, leisure activities and formal brain training. The key in any activity is to include novelty (to encourage thinking outside the box), challenge and variety.
C) Physical activity
Exercise delivers additional blood and oxygen to the brain. Yet, it does so much more. It actually causes alterations in the nerve cells. They produce more neurotrophins, which are compounds that increase the formation of new nerve cells and enhance their connectivity. They also make the neurons we have more resistant to the aging process. Cross train your brain by starting with a good aerobic program and mix in resistance (weight training) exercise and speed and agility components such as jumping rope, playing ping-pong, gymnastics and various balance drills.
D) Stress reduction
Chronic, unremitting stress kills neurons. This is especially detrimental to memory function. So include a component of stress reduction in your approach to optimal brain health and make sure to get plenty of sleep.
E) Be Aware of Side effects of medications
There are medications that lower the level of important brain nutrients in the body such as B vitamins and coenzyme Q10. Check with your doctor to screen for these. There are also many common medicines (many OTC) that have anti-cholinergic activities. These can impair the function of one of the most important memory neurotransmitters in the brain -acetylcholine.
Finally, what brain health-related information or practices would you suggest other doctors and health professionals pay more attention to, both for themselves and the patients they see?
They should counsel their patients on tips for brain health such as those listed above in much the same way they discuss cardiac risk factors and how to address them. I would like to see physicians encourage their patients to avoid high-fructose corn syrup because it has recently been shown to be associated with increased brain atrophy.
Dr. McCleary, many thanks for your great insights.
John Medina, in "Brain Rules; 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School speaks to the need to execise four brain systems and 12 brain "muscles".
Very early in my personal growth experience, a wise person taught me to use the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was resentful or afraid and that phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
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