Brain Fitness Regime
Chronic stress can damage important physiological systems – not just the cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and other systems, but also some key brain centers. It can also interfere with normal daily functioning. The key is, while facing the many slings and arrows of modern living, develop and ability to habitually resist unhealthy temptations, and to remain emotionally attuned. The latest research suggests adequate emotional reactions are key to human bonding, learning, complex thinking, and even mundane decision making. Given the abundant temptations and distractions we constantly face, self-control is crucial; but it can undermine creativity and joy when practiced in excess.
It is needed for resting, recharging your batteries, and being better able to handle stress the next day. It is also essential for learning, since during sleep the brain automatically sifts through impressions from the day and selects (mostly on the basis of emotional tagging) which ones are worth preserving in long-term memory. A brief afternoon nap can do wonders for you.
2. Relaxation and downtime
During periods of inactivity (or daydreaming) the brain tunes itself up, and pathways between regions farther removed from each other are reinforced. Such links are essential for complex thinking and making associations between things that may not seem closely related. Slow breathing, yoga, a creative hobby, etc. could also help. Any spiritual or self-transcendent dimension, or a loving relationship can provide much needed sustenance in life.
Aerobic exercise helps with mood and concentration, and energizes brain cells at the cellular level. Exercise promotes the formation of new neurons in key brain centers. It also boosts mood and willpower. It’s most important not to sit or lie down for long periods of time during the day – these need to be interrupted by getting up and walking around the room, stretching a bit, etc.
4. Screen time
Staring into screens for prolonged periods of time cannot possibly be good for your brain. It also encourages a sedentary lifestyle, which the latest research suggests can change gene expression in the muscles and throughout the organism.
Read mostly books and printouts of longer articles with rich, metaphorical and idiomatic language (read “my Brain on Fiction” in The New York Times. “Deep reading” is crucial for brain development and learning. It also helps reduce stress (at least for those who love to read).
Carry with you a small notepad and write down tasks and thoughts throughout the day. You will be better able to keep track of these, plus handwriting in itself activates the brain in a very healthy way (read “How Handwriting Trains the Brain” in Wall Street Journal).
Healthy eating is essential, particularly eating vegetables and cutting down on simple carbohydrates (anything made from white flower, potatoes, sugar – including soft drinks and juices). Healthy snacks can recharge the body and brain throughout the day, and small amounts of alcohol can help relax. Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be detrimental, but overloading on supplements may have a downside, too.
Caffeine helps focus, but should not be consumed at times which could interfere with sleep; and being constantly revved up can subvert emotional attunement. Also, strong stimulants may interfere with creativity. Nicotine doesn’t seem to have this side effect, but is addictive and cigarettes are a health hazard (and smell bad). Dark chocolate, consumed in moderation, could be a healthy substitute. Any substance or behavior which becomes addictive or compulsive can numb your sensations and limit your ability to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Sometimes the best strategy may be to become addicted to healthy pursuits, like physical exercise or deep reading (the former also needs to be practiced with moderation).
7. Traumatic brain injury
There is a new awareness of the vulnerability of the brain to such injury (look up Wikipedia entry). The brain has some capacity, on the other hand, to rewire itself and compensate for some deficiencies (see “The Brain That Changes Itself” on YouTube).