Neuroplasticity: Upgrade Your Brain

by Adam Gale

Focus, creativity and stress-management are all things you can change with a bit of brain science.

WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new synaptic connections between neurons. It’s what enables us to learn new things.

We’re at our most neuroplastic as babies, but as we get older and become more efficient at doing things we already know how to do, we get less neuroplastic. In recent years, however, scientists have discovered that adult brains are far more malleable than they’d previously thought.

WHY DOES IT MATTER TO ME?

Because it means you’re able to improve things that you didn’t realise you could. Whereas before you may have thought there was no point trying to improve because you were congenitally unimaginative or irredeemably scatterbrained, now you have no excuse.

‘Neuroplasticity is happening anyway, we don’t have to do anything to make it happen,’ explains Dr Jenny Brockis, author of The Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain. ‘If you are exposed to new stimuli, your brain will rewire itself in response.  But if you choose to, you can literally upgrade how well your brain functions in areas like memory or focus.’

HOW CAN YOU USE NEUROPLASTICITY TO UPGRADE YOUR BRAIN?

We are creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. If we’re in a situation often enough, our brains will form such strong pathways that our responses become automatic. It’s similar to riding a bike or using a keyboard.

Unfortunately, our brains can just as often form unhelpful habits as helpful ones: giving a speech automatically causing unnecessary anxiety, for instance. If we want to harness our inherent neuroplasticity to replace bad habits with good, we simply need to practice applying the good habit in a given situation instead of the bad one, until it becomes our ‘new normal’.

It’s hardly rocket science (or indeed brain surgery…), but it works. To increase your chances, Brockis advises picking one thing to work on at a time. ‘New synaptic connections are incredibly fragile when they first form, so you’ve got to nurture them and make sure they stay intact by going back to them and practising. It’s a bit like when you learn to drive a car for the first time – it’s clunky and horrible at first but with repetition and time it becomes much easier,’ Brockis says.

Don’t expect a one-off fix, however. Vigilance and discipline are required. ‘We don’t break habits, they just get weaker if we can replace them with a new, stronger habit. But when a bit pressure comes along, the stress levels go up and we default to the old ways. The brain’s hardwired to go back to the simplest route it knows best.’

WHAT IF YOU DON’T GET THE CHANCE TO PRACTISE YOUR NEW GOOD HABIT?

Rewiring how your brain responds to something that happens regularly (your nightmare morning commute, let’s say) is a lot easier than when the trigger happens less frequently.

Public speaking, for example, is something that for many people only comes along once or twice a year. It’s not impossible to use neuroplasticity to your advantage in these situations, however. Visualisation has been proven to activate the same parts of the brain as actual practice does while focusing on a positive past memory can help to improve your mindset.

ARE THERE LIMITS TO NEUROPLASTICITY?

The short answer is we don’t know. The research is still in its infancy. However, it would seem unlikely to expect you could transform yourself from, say, a numbers dunce to an arithmetical genius, just through a spot of practice. Some things are just hardwired.

But progress is possible where before we assumed it wasn’t. It’s a particularly relevant message for older workers, who might face the prospect of having to retrain mid or late career. ‘The more we use our brain to continue to learn new things the more plasticity we retain. That old saying of “use it or lose it” was right,’ says Brockis.

Old dogs can learn new tricks then, but only if they keep trying.

 

This article was originally posted on Management Today.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.

 

Sleep your way to the top

By Dr Tara Swart

What makes a good leader?

Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.

In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain’s executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.

That final element – rest – is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you’re effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.

Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires seven to eight hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta-amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.

While high stress levels can make sleeping more difficult, getting a good night’s sleep can also help to reduce the effects of stress.

How can I improve the quality of my sleep?

There are many simple but effective ways you can improve the quality of your sleep. Those who work late on phones, laptops, and tablets are at a higher risk of poor sleep quality. This is because melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start work. Our ability to fall asleep, and the quality of that sleep, is thus impacted. Brain activity may increase by virtue of the information we are consuming at those late hours as well. Turning off all screens an hour before bed is a good antidote to this.

Other simple ways of improving sleep quality include:

  • Making sure you are sleeping in complete darkness—no stand-by lights in the bedroom and with black-out curtains (or wear an eye mask).
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2:00 pm. The half-life of caffeine is 8-10 hours and its effects can disturb your sleep.
  • Try lavender. Our olfactory nerves directly connect the nose to the limbic part of our brain. Lavender is the strongest naturally occurring neuro-modulator. Try using it to relax and to create an association with sleep when you go to bed.
  • Skip the nightcap. Although alcohol is often used by people to help them fall asleep, it interferes with proper sleep cycles and does not provide a benefit.

If your sleep has been disrupted, there are ways you can cope in the short term:

  • Napping during the day gives your brain a power boost. A 30-minute nap improves your learning and memory. A 60–90 minute nap will help additional connections to form, which aids creativity.
  • As little as 12 minutes of meditation or mindfulness activity can boost your cognitive function significantly enough to build up your mental resilience.

Through my work as a leadership coach and the courses,I teach at MIT (Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People and Neuroscience for Leadership) I regularly come across driven, ambitious, capable people who want to excel at what they do. But often they have not considered the mental resilience it will take to achieve and sustain their goals, whether heading up a global company or simply reaching the next level in their career. Resting your brain properly through a good night’s sleep is essential to achieving mental resilience and peak brain performance.

About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.

 

Five Daily Habits For Future-Proofing Your Brain

By Tara Swart

This is how to keep your brain alert, creative, and rational for decades to come.

Just a few generations ago, most people weren’t expected to live much past 50. But now most of us can expect to live well into our 70s and beyond. A longer life, however, means that we’re working our brains harder as we age.

In an ageing population, health services worldwide will face increasing pressure. Combined with our sedentary lifestyles and modern habits, which are harming our brain’s health as well as our bodies, we could be heading toward a crisis when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to studies published in the Journal Of Comparative Neurology and the Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease.

But there are things you can do to prevent that fate. Small lifestyle choices throughout your adulthood can help your brain remain alert, creative, rational, and reduce the likelihood of disease. Here are some steps you can take to guard your brain against deteriorating as you get older:

1. SWITCH UP SOME OF YOUR FOOD HABITS

Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s vital for our brains. You can start by making small, easy changes to your routine like swapping your late afternoon cup of coffee for a green tea. Green tea contains less caffeine and has antioxidants, which will help protect your brain cells from long-term damage. You can also stay away from smoked foods or those high in mercury like tuna or swordfish, which are high in oxidants and damaging to brain cells.

Eating healthily doesn’t mean consuming only lettuce and quinoa all day. Academics at the University of Edinburgh found that a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, olive oil, and oily fish could help promote cell growth and stave off cognitive decline.

2. ADD JUST 20 MINUTES OF MOVEMENT TO EACH DAY

Being well rested and properly fed isn’t enough to stave off cognitive decline – you need to get up and get moving. Aerobic activity boosts blood flow throughout the body and brain. Research has shown that it can improve memory and stimulates cell growth, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. Better still, exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of antidepressants and is associated with a drop in stress hormones. To get the maximum benefits, try to do about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week (or about 20 minutes a day).

3. BUST OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE MORE REGULARLY

Your brain will stay fit and alert for longer if it is continually stimulated and challenged. Contrary to popular belief, our brains are not hardwired. Old habits can be unlearned and replaced with new ones. This process is known as neuroplasticity. Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument is the best way to keep your brain flexible because it forces the brain to forge new neural pathways and develop new connections. By keeping your brain malleable, you are also maintaining the ability to keep an open mind.

Spending time with people of different generations or backgrounds will also help prevent your brain from defaulting to well-trodden neural pathways and biases.

4. PRIORITISE SLEEP

While we sleep, our glymphatic system ‘cleans’ our brains of neurotoxins, including beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins. This is an active process that takes time, hence the need to get your seven to nine hours and avoid accumulating ‘sleep debt’. As explained in 2015 research published in Nature Review Neurology, a build-up of these neurotoxins can contribute significantly to the degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

5. MAINTAIN AN ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE

Human beings are social creatures. But as we age, our social circle tends to decline, and we typically experience less social interaction on a day-to-day basis. However, maintaining an active social life with friends and family is critical to cognitive health. According to a study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, cognitive decline was reduced by an average of 70% in people who were frequently socially active compared to those who were more isolated.
About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.

 

 

Confidence Over Competence: The Key to Unlocking Female Leadership

By Dr Tara Swart

As a neuroscientist and executive advisor, I am used to working in not one, but two male-dominated professions, regularly finding myself at the cross-section between science and business through my consultancy work with leaders. As a coach, I am able to observe the qualities which lend themselves to effective leadership, as well as to consider how we might change the physiology of the brain to improve our performance and behaviour, become more mentally resilient, and be better leaders.

IMPOSTER SYNDROME

My clients and peers tend to be men, due to the continued gender inequity at the top of business today. So I want to consider how understanding neuroscience can help empower women to join the ranks of the business elite.

I see a high number of male sufferers of imposter syndrome because of the gender makeup of my client base, but in our society, it is understandably perceived that sufferers of imposter syndrome tend to be women. This may be because women have lower levels of testosterone, the hormone which correlates with confidence, although research in this area is somewhat lacking. The condition is characterised by a feeling that, despite having the relevant qualifications, you aren’t sufficiently competent or expert to be in the position you are in, or that you do not deserve to be appointed to a higher post with more responsibilities. Imposter syndrome promotes the cycle that prevents female leadership: women don’t go for roles because they don’t believe they have the requisite level of competence, and in turn there are fewer women in leadership positions to set a precedent and make leadership look tangible and achievable to others.

REAPING THE REWARDS OF COGNITIVE DIVERSITY

However, there is a growing body of evidence which shows that diversity of thinking can really benefit a business’s bottom line. Diversity has been proven to help businesses and projects thrive, not only creatively but also financially. Currently, 80-90% of people in top-level leadership positions are male, yet research conducted by academics at the Ashridge and London Business Schools has shown that cognitive diversity will translate to higher performance amongst teams, and will therefore have a positive impact on the bottom line of an enterprise. There is a place for female leadership qualities (which can exist in both male and female brains) such as intuition, emotional intelligence, flexibility of thinking and valuing human capital – not least because these qualities are less difficult to imitate by technology; they will continue to be more valuable as the world of work changes and AI becomes more prevalent in decision making.  

We see time and time again that inclusive attitudes help to foster creativity and innovation, and to inspire confidence amongst the workforce which in turn, leads to bigger, bolder decisions and to the implementation of change.

CONFIDENCE AND THE POWER OF NEUROPLASTICITY

Indeed, confidence could be the crucial missing ingredient when it comes to female leadership. Whilst men naturally have up to 8 times higher levels of testosterone, no one is born confident, or under-confident for that matter. It can be developed and improved by helping our brains imagine what we can achieve and how to reach our goals.

Try thinking consciously and mindfully about some of your past successes, whether professional or personal. Even paying attention to the successes of similar people around you can help your brain to visualise these accomplishments as achievable for you as well, reframing what might originally seem out of reach as something attainable. Most people assume that our brains are fixed once we reach adult life. However, research has now shown that our brains are ‘plastic’ and can be adapted and changed, forging new neural pathways, according to how we stimulate and use them. This ability is called neuroplasticity and means that we can change the physical structure of the brain to rewire our responses to challenges and improve our behaviours. Repeating positive mantras is thought to help with this rewiring process as we reroute negative thoughts of self-doubt towards self-belief. Take your biggest self-doubt and create a mantra out of the opposite statement.

Confidence can be built up through our physical actions as well. Simply standing tall and acting with assurance is thought to boost testosterone levels and reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. In the same way hunching and making yourself small will have the opposite effect, reducing testosterone levels. The posture studies have been somewhat discredited in terms of actually changing your hormone profile, but if they make you feel better – use them! Certain types of aerobic exercise, such as boxing, can actually help to increase testosterone production.

Finally, make sure you look after your brain. Rest it, fuel it, hydrate it, oxygenate it and simplify your decisions to free up cognitive resource. All of these things will go a long way to reducing your stress levels, strengthening your resolve and enhancing your mental resilience, helping you to power through to the next stage of your career.

About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. She works with leaders at the top of the business world to help them get the best out of their brains, reach their peak performance and improve their mental agility and resilience.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to enhance the diversity of your team’s thinking.

 

6 Foods To Help You Cope With Stress

We’re all aware of the foods that can promote anxiety, such as alcohol, caffeine and fatty foods.  But what about the foods that help us feel energised, refreshed and calm?

Here are six foods which are great at helping to manage your anxiety. From getting your neurotransmitters the nutrients they need to lowering blood pressure – these foods are optimal for stress relief.

1. Almonds

Balance your mood with the zinc found in almonds. The iron they hold will assist you with brain activity. You will also benefit from the healthy fats they contain for the optimal functioning of your neurotransmitters.

You may not think that your tired brain is linked to your anxiety. However, a lack of mental energy can increase your anxiety when you have a fatigued state of mind.

2. Turkey

Put yourself to sleep with the tryptophan in turkey. Importantly, tryptophan does not only induce a restful sleep but also serves as a precursor to serotonin. Your serotonin secretion is believed to act as a mood stabilizer that can calm you down.

3. Avocados

Your super food for health truly is avocado. This is because it provides you with fibre, heart-healthy fatty acids, potassium and an abundance of vitamins!

Your blood pressure will thank you for eating avocado, as with their high levels of potassium -higher even than that found in bananas – they are fantastic at lowering blood pressure. Your neurotransmitters also receive vitamin B from avocado as well as monounsaturated fats. This allows them to function at their optimal.

4. Water

We all know that hydration is key to overall health and wellness. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that it can assist in relaxation. It has been shown that even mild dehydration (when you start to feel thirsty) can have a large impact on your energy levels and general mood. Staying hydrated keeps your body regulated naturally and can result in lowered levels of anxiety.

5. Eggs

Your brain will operate at its best when assisted by the high levels of vitamin B in eggs. You will also assist your brain from becoming confused, irritable, or exhausted with the choline found in eggs.

6. Salmon

As a fish high in omega 3 fatty acids, salmon has been shown to help improve general mood and assist the brain in managing stress levels.

This article originally featured on longevitylive.com

Advice From Your Brain’s Personal Trainer

By Dr Tara Swart

What did you eat for breakfast this morning? It matters more than you might think.

Anyone whose job depends on their body—like an Olympic athlete, builder, or ballet dancer—needs a diet to match; they might start the day with a slow-release carbohydrate to give them longer-lasting energy. But few people with “thinking” jobs sit down first thing in the morning and consider which foods and drinks will help them make good decisions that day, improve their focus, and reduce stress. And that’s a mistake.

What we put into our bodies has a powerful impact on our brains, which only weigh 2–3% of our body weight but use up 25–30% of the energy that’s found in what we eat. Our brains need to be properly cared for in order to make sure we perform at our best. You’d never jump in your car and set off without filling up the tank or checking the oil. If you tried to, you wouldn’t expect to get very far. Our brains are similar: They need to be properly fueled and hydrated in order to run smoothly, and we shouldn’t expect optimal performance when they’re not.

Here’s what your brain needs more and less of in order to work at its best.

More Water

Drinking enough water should be, well, a no-brainer—except that many people don’t do that. Our brains require about 500 millilitres of water for every 30 or so pounds of body weight. (So for the average 165-pound American adult, that’s about 2.75 litres of water each day.) This is the minimum level of hydration needed to avoid denting your memory, concentration, and decision-making. But there’s a real risk to missing that threshold even by a little. In fact, researchers have found that even a 1–3% shortfall in adequate hydration can substantially affect these functions. Water aids the free flow of chemical and electrical signals between cells, which is required for effective brain functioning.

Less Alcohol

If a glass of water can boost your brain, a glass of Chianti can slow it down. Drinking alcohol leads to increased levels of the hormone cortisol as the body reacts to the intake of a toxin. Cortisol is a natural part of the body’s response to stress, but chronic stress can lead to excess cortisol, which can have a host of negative effects on the body—like weight gain—as well as the brain, including anxiety and depression, particularly when coupled with a diet high in caffeine and sugar. So having a glass of wine every evening to unwind, as many people do, may have the opposite effect.

More Greens, Beans and Grains

Foods rich in magnesium can suppress the release of cortisol, but when we’re stressed we deplete our bodies’ magnesium stores more rapidly. Whole grains, beans, and leafy greens are good magnesium sources, as are nuts and seeds—which can also be great alternatives to sweet snacks. Unfortunately, these natural sources aren’t always enough to replenish our magnesium supplies during high-stress periods, so supplements, which are often available as tablets or even body salts and bath products, can help make up the difference.

Less Tuna, More Mackerel

Salmon and oily fish like mackerel are great for the brain because of their Omega-3 essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, and protein. These nutrients assist in brain-cell growth and can prevent cognitive decline. On the other hand, smoked fish and fish that are typically high in mercury (like tuna and swordfish) can increase levels of pro-oxidants in the body and actively damage brain cells. Your choice in seafood one day doesn’t just impact your brain in the near-term, it also has an effect on your future brain power.

More Rest, Less Thirst and Hunger

Speaking of brain power, there’s one factor we tend to grasp much better when we think about sleep than about diet: quantity. It’s not just about what you eat and drink, it’s how much you do. Being over-tired can lead to behaviours many of us are all too familiar with—from our attitude toward others to how we make decisions—plus a few we aren’t aware of, like the extent to which our choices are affected by our unconscious biases.

Much as it does when you aren’t well rested when you’re hungry or thirsty, your brain reverts to “survival mode.” It draws blood away from the rational cortex toward the part of the brain that controls basic functions you depend on to get through the day. So while you might have not much trouble getting dressed, commuting, or doing routine tasks when you’re underfed or dehydrated, your brain will struggle with higher “executive functions,” like complex problem-solving, thinking flexibly and creatively, regulating emotions, and overriding biases.

When they’re underpowered, our brains revert to well-trod neural shortcuts that require less cognitive energy. One well-publicized study even found a pattern of judges granting more parole after mealtimes, with their sentences getting harsher in the subsequent hours. The implications for reading resumes, interviewing job candidates, and making other important decisions when you haven’t eaten are clear—and worrying.

It might feel overwhelming to totally change your diet, but sticking with even one behaviour change to boost your brain health can make a real difference. So start small—swap that bag of chips today for a bag of nuts. Your brain will be grateful.

This article originally featured on FastCompany.

About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.