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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.

 

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.

 

 

Dr Tara Swart’s 5 Brain Health Habits For Better Leadership

By Savannah Freemantle

Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist and leadership coach with a unique brain health angle on what it takes to be a better leader and achieve success.

Her aim is to teach people why optimal brain functionality is important in a leader. Explaining that it strengthens your decision-making and improves your performance at work. She says that improving the quality of your lifestyle can help you to enhance your leadership abilities and excel in your field.

“Poor sleep, lack of exercise, stress and poor nutrition can all contribute to poor mental function. This reduces your ability to perform at work and present good leadership qualities.”

What Brain Health Habits Make For Better Leadership?

Dr Tara Swart breaks down the key aspects to a healthy lifestyle that supports good leadership:

1. Good Sleep

“98-99% of brains need to sleep for 7-9 hours per night, as this allows the lymphatic system to be cleansed of neurotoxins,” she explains. “Sleep is a forcible flushing of neurotoxins, this is important as overtime, a build up can cause neurological disorders. Poor sleep can also result in fatigue and make it more difficult to manage ones emotions.”

A good night’s rest resets the brain and allows you to approach your day with a sharp, clear mind.

2. The Correct Nutrition

If you are under stress, eat every two hours for optimal brain  health. Your brain can’t store glucose and so it is important to keep replenishing your stores,” Dr Swart explains. This will help you to maintain your focus and ensures a productivity boost. It also ensures that your brain is well fed for any of the decisions it may need to make.

She adds that if you have the space to develop your mental resilience, then it can be useful to practice intermittent fasting as it teaches your brain that you can manage small amounts of physical stress, because you are in control of your recovery.

She adds, “You should also avoid eating too close to bedtime as this disrupts sleep.”

Dr Swart suggests a diet high in salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts, and healthy oils. Preferably it should contain reduced amounts of smoked foods, red meats, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. It’s also crucial to stay hydrated.

3. Regular Exercise

I recommend 10 000 steps a day and 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week,” she shares. “

“It’s important to engage in aerobic exercise as this assists in oxygenating the brain, which is vital for healthy functionality. It is also important to participate in activities that require different levels of co-ordination, such as Ping-Pong, and that include a social element,” she explains.

Exercise also boosts your energy levels and your mood. Allowing you to be more positive and develop the stamina it takes to get more done.

4. Stress Less

 Stress is a physical or psychological load that is too much for your body to bear,” Dr Swart explains. It results in high levels of cortisol and affects your quality of thinking and your ability to regulate emotions.”

She adds that high cortisol levels erode your immunity, which makes you more susceptible to illness and can result in time off work. They also have a negative impact on sleep, which results in neurotoxic build-up. This causes death in the nerve cells in the brain. Mindfulness practice is very helpful in reducing cortisol levels.

5. Improved Neuroplasticity

“Learning something new in adulthood, such as another language or a musical instrument, improves your neuroplasticity which has been shown to prevent the onset of neurological disease and keep your brain sharp. This improves your focus and decision making ability.”

Another good reason to never stop learning.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article was originally posted by Longevity.