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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.

 

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.

 

How To Get The Best Out Of Your Brain At Work

By Dr Tara Swart

You might not have guessed it, but neuroscience and the way the brain works has all sorts of implications for business. Most people get paid to use their brains, but few understand how their brain works and how to get the best out of it. Understanding neuroscience means that we can better understand leadership stress and resilience, risk-taking and decision-making; how to harness diversity of thinking in teams; how to create conditions for success in organisations; and how to deal effectively with rapid change.

Our brains are by no means fixed or set in adulthood: neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change itself in response to what it experiences, means that we are all capable of changing the way with think and feel about things. The more we practice new behaviours, the deeper the neural pathways will become, and the easier the new process is.  If we want to make a change, for example, from a fixed to a growth mindset, we have to do it consciously and deliberately with awareness, focus and attention.

Just like athletes train their bodies, professionals should look after their brain’s health in order to enhance their performance at work. Our body is not just a convenient vehicle for moving the brain from meeting to meeting. We receive a lot of information and input from our bodies. In the stomach and gut, you find almost all of the neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that are also active in the brain, and help us make decisions and function in everyday life. Caring for both body and brain with a healthy diet, we can improve our brain’s effectiveness at work. Good hydration is equally important; likewise, cutting back on alcohol and caffeine is ideal.  

The ways in which you can improve your brain’s physical health to boost your performance at work (and outside of it) fall into 5 broad categories: Rest, fuel, hydration, oxygenation and mindfulness, or simplification.

1. Sleep

Make sure you get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep every night. Whilst you sleep, your glymphatic system cleans your brain. Population norm studies have shown that any disruption to this reduces your working IQ by 5-8 points the next day.

2. Fuel

Eating properly boosts your brain’s executive functions such as emotional regulation, complex problem-solving and thinking flexibly. Eating magnesium rich foods, such as beans, nuts or leafy green vegetables and taking a mineral supplement lowers levels of your stress hormone cortisol. If you find it hard, you can simply take supplements in magnesium and omega oils alongside your usual diet.

3. Hydration

Hydration is critical as a 1-3% decrease can negatively affect your memory, concentration and decision-making. Try to drink at least 500ml of water for every 15kg of your body weight a day.

4. Oxygenation

Doing regular exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of anti-depressants and boosts your productivity by as much as 15%. Physical exercise releases cortisol from your body through sweating and this helps you deal with stress.

5. Mindfulness

Practising mindfulness can reduce cortisol levels in the blood which lowers our stress levels and makes us feel more relaxed.

Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens folds in the pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with higher executive functions such as emotion regulation, problem solving and flexible thinking.

We have a limited amount of quality decisions we can make each day, so avoid focusing too much energy on decision-making in the morning, saving your cognitive resources for throughout the day.

In sum, neuroscience turns out to be far more important for business than we might first imagine. Neuroscience-based coaching, and drawing on the remarkable plasticity of the brain, helps create the ideal environment and mindset in which business leaders can thrive, enjoy their work, and build happier teams too.

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

This article was originally posted by Entrepreneur Magazine.