To give ourselves the best chance of nurturing our inner goals via emotional processes we must be sure our responses aren’t affected by the third party influence of ill health, or the less understood background of low grade inflammations brought about by poor lifestyles.
Look after the brain and life is good, but to do that is not as easy as taking an aspirin for a headache. A healthy functioning brain needs a multidisciplinary approach - you need exercise, nutrition, relaxation and purpose.
Exercise: ‘Over a decade of research in animals and people shows that engaging in regular aerobic activity leads to changes in the brain associated with improved cognition.’ Exercise not only improves the efficiency of brain function but includes structural changes such as increasing the volume of the hippocampus - the center for new memories.
The hippocampus is more susceptible to stress than any other part of the brain; prolonged periods of stress lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus associated with depression and age related dementias. The best way to exercise the hippocampus is in the age old therapy of movement and social discourse - walking and talking, dancing, or just shuffling around the daily duties of one’s life while being nice.
Nutrition: ‘...what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.’
· Plenty of Omega 3 foods (the brain is two thirds fat): fish, leafy greens, walnuts and mother’s milk for infants; ‘there exists realistic evidence to consider that nutritional therapies based on fatty acids can be of benefit to several currently incurable nervous system diseases.’
· Use good oils; the best being coconut, butter, olive, avocado, macadamia, palm oil and lard. Avoid vegetable oils (high in omega-6 fatty acids) such as sunflower, safflower, corn, grape seed, canola, soybean, cottonseed, rice bran, sesame.
· Eat less sugar and avoid trans-fatty acids found in margarines, shortenings and most processed foods.
· Drink a moderate amount of champagne and red wine – yep!
· Cocoa is good for the brain and the gut, but only eat dark chocolate with high cocoa and low sugar content.
· Eat high quality protein foods such as eggs, poultry, yogurt and nuts.
Relaxation: ‘Research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.’ Chronic stress is similar to a lack of exercise in that it reduces the size of the hippocampus while the stress hormone cortisol affects the wiring between the hippocampus and the amygdala.
‘Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells...inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex...(and) lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder.' (Terrorism is a sickness brought about by societal inequalities).
Meditation and mindfulness techniques are good ways to relieve stress, but so too is a regular lifestyle that includes leisure time and good sleep.
Most people have an understanding of leisure time but sleep is something that modern living has distorted. Up until the invention of street lamps in the 17th Century modern man had always had two four hour sleeps broken by a reflective two hours doing other things.
Purpose: Sure you can celebrate on your own but who’s going to tell the story? Modern man would not have come this far if it weren’t for shared goals and victories. Unless you are at the deep end of psychopathy, you must connect with others. ‘A separation from each other is a separation from ourselves and from our very life source. Loneliness and connection are as important factors of health as good nutrition...’
If for some reason our brains are damaged and our mental facilities diminished, applying ourselves to optimising the brains health can limit the damage and in many cases the brain can find alternative wiring as in the case of Pat Rummerfield who broke his neck in four places and after 17 years of intense rehab completed an ‘iron man’ triathlon.
The neuroplasticity of the brain is demonstrated by the fact that many blind people use the visual cortex when performing tactile tasks such as reading Braille. We also know that sound can activate the visual cortex. Both of these observations point towards the brain being more than the sum of its parts.
Neuroscientist Colin Blakemore believes that modern man’s ascendancy is the result of the brains ability to adapt and rewire according to circumstances and he believes that this ability happened by mutation 200,000 years ago.
Adapting and rewiring is clearly demonstrated by the man who was missing 90% of his brain and still lived a normal life - had a job, a family and an IQ of 84. Cognitive psychologist Axel Cleeremans who studied the man suggests that the brain’s consciousness is shown by its awareness, which in turn depends on the brain’s ability to learn.
The first neurons appear in the babies brain at 7 weeks and this is when Mum is likely to feel movement; by the third trimester the babies brain is already learning.
‘Of all the things I study, research, write about, and teach, I don’t know if there’s anything that intrigues me as much as prenatal development does. How a blastocyst — seemingly nothing more than a ball of cells—differentiates into a 10-trillion cell baby in 40 weeks astonishes me.’… ‘the full physical basis for the potential for ALL learning, intelligence, memory, language, creativity (you name it!) is put into place by the time your child is two years old?’
To my mind the plasticity of a united brain working in total concert with itself is best expressed in the concept of flow or ‘being in the zone’, which is defined as a state of effortless attention.
Flow is a philosophical principle that dates back many thousands of years but one which resurfaced in the 1980’s and is attributed to Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi whose curiosity was: ‘…struck by how deeply they were involved in work, forgetting everything else. That state seemed so intriguing that I started also looking for it in chess players, in rock climbers, in dancers and in musicians.’
Flow is not associated with intellectual intelligence so perhaps flow represents a neuroplasticity of the brain which seeks efficiency rather than facts.
Strangely enough, the average brain size has shrunk over the last 10-20,000 years of sedentism and the conjectured reason is that the emotional environment of hunter/gatherer has changed with established settlement. Our mental IQ may have dropped but our humanity, which is a measure of emotional intelligence, seems to have improved – we no longer leave our sick and weak to die beside the roadside!
More strangely than this, the last 100 years has seen our collective brain size increase?
The Universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago and by 3.8 billion years ago ‘life’ appeared and has since evolved by happenstance and misfortune into the world that Homo sapiens inherited 200,000 years ago. During the same 3,800,000,000 years of evolving life bacteria only managed a handful of types but within these types it evolved many millions of unique species that play an essential role in the maintenance of planetary life - and when bacteria are happy with their environment they live in a happy symbiotic relationship with man.
Through the ages the amygdala has been the watch-guard of vertebrate survival and is regarded to be a ‘primitive’ area of the brain, even though it too is evolving. The prefrontal cortex is modern man’s way of regulating ‘primitive’ response mechanisms; it is the last area of the brain fully activated with age (late 20’s) and it has grown out of proportion to the rest of the Homo sapiens brain by way of an increase in white matter - the stuff that transmits information and maintains memory.
Like all other life-forms bacteria thrive and replicate according to the favorability of their environment; humans are no exception and like bacteria we need the cooperation of others. The psychopath works within the concept of ‘what can I get out of this’, but the ultimate success of the human tribe depends on universal goals and the emotional intelligence to decipher the ways of interrelationship.
Aggrandizement of the individual ego is not a collective goal – cohesive planetary life is.
‘...evolution didn't happen just to make humans. We aren't more advanced in an evolutionary sense than fish, lizards, or mice. Each species is just adapted to the roles it finds itself in, and continues to adapt.'
The Genus Homo has reduced to one species, Homo sapiens, and the superiority of our tribe is aligned to the growth of the prefrontal cortex. Our future evolution and our role as patrons of Earth depends on clear thinking, and clear thinking is in a feedback loop with healthy brain function, our emotional intelligence and our interconnectedness.
Our brain is the result of one of the many pathways of creation but it just happens to be the most complex - and that complexity augments its evolutionary development. The better we understand the workings of our brain the closer we come to understanding the singularity that is life.
your brain, since your brain’s unique qualities are at the forefront of your evolutionary line. Just make sure that, within the bounds
of your responsibilities, you are doing your best to understand the reasons for your decision making.