I wanted to be like Arnie
So I went to the gym once.
Seriously, have you seen what they do?
I couldn’t imagine wearing what they were wearing, doing what they were doing, or grunting like that. And paying to let them hurt me.
Truly, I could perfectly well go outside and slam all my fingers in the car door. For free. And wearing something sartorial rather than sweaty old spandex.
But there they were, by the neon-sweating-grunting dozen.
Raising the bar
A couple of times of late we’ve talked about finding exercises for your brain that are, as you’d find in a gym, increasingly challenging.
If you liken this to Arnie exercising his biceps, it’s like lifting heavier and heavier weights as you get stronger and stronger, so providing increasing challenge. This seems to make intuitive sense, no?
Except the brain isn’t a muscle.
However, we know that, like a muscle, the brain gets tired with effort and, when it does, it performs more poorly, in tests of reasoning, willpower, and being rational with staggeringly idiotic colleagues. You see the same poor performance in the glazed-eye stupor that belongs to new parents who haven’t had enough sleep.
We know, too, that the brain likes to conserve energy and use it only as it needs to. By energy we mean glucose, which is the brain’s fuel.
Windows to your inner slacker
We also know, courtesy of some groovy little experiments, that we can see how the brain works out. Or doesn’t. No doubt you’ve heard the expression the eyes are the window to the soul, and they are also the window to the brain’s exertion and energy expenditure. What we see through these windows, is that it’s a born slacker.
Pupil dilation is a fantastic indicator of how much effort your brain is expending on a task. It also shows, therefore, if you’re chewing through your brain’s glucose stocks.
The fascinating thing about watching the pupils is that they are a direct reflection of mental effort. While you’re concentrating, working on a problem, thinking hard, your pupils dilate (get bigger). But the moment you’ve solved the problem or, given up on it, your pupils constrict.
What’s cool is that your pupils will constrict even before you announce you’ve given up or solved it. Your brain knows it’s done, one way or the other, before you do.
Additionally, because the brain likes to find the easiest way to do something, and so conserve energy, it tends to give us quick answers to things. They’re answers that sound good, feel good, and are sometimes even right.
And, truthfully, in many cases in life, close enough really is good enough, or it just doesn’t matter at all anyway. Getting beyond this immediate response, though, requires effort and focus, and that’s the working out that makes the brain tired.
The best thing for the brain’s energy reserves is the path of least resistance. It’s not the best thing for brain fitness.
To build a Mr Olympian brain, you need to tap into your inner fitness trainer to overcome your inner slacker.
What challenge does for the brain
A mental workout can be tiring. However, ask anyone who thinks for a living, and they’ll tell you that you get used to it, in the same way that physical work can be tiring, but you get used to that, too.
But inside the brain, extraordinary things are happening. Each time you begin a task that is a little more difficult, the brain has to stretch to get there. A little more effort than last time. And to do so, a couple of pivotal things happen.
You start to produce more myelin, which is the fatty insulating sheath that wraps around your brain cells, and you start to increase the number of connections between the brain cells that are doing the work.
The more you use these brain cells, the more myelin you produce. More myelin means that the communication within a cell, from one end of the cell to the other (the nerve impulse) is faster.
Usually, the electrical nerve impulse travels from one end of the cell to the other in a wave, much as what happens when you wiggle a slinky, or flick one end of a rope. The wave starts larger at the beginning of the cell, but decreases in size as it travels along the cell.
Cells that are myelinated have tiny gaps between the sections of myelin where it’s wrapped around the axon, which is like a long skinny tail, so that it looks like a string of sausages. In this instance, the electrical impulse (called the action potential) is regenerated at each gap between the sausages, making the journey from one end to the other quicker, and with a stronger finish, and so more likely to fire the next brain cell, or cells, in line.
Faster transmission makes thinking and information processing easier. If you’re learning a skill, for example, the repeated activation of a brain circuit continues to wrap myelin around the cells in that circuit. As you repeatedly exercise the skill, it becomes smoother and smoother.
So too with thinking. The more myelin, the better.
More connections mean better communications between cells. There are more connections for starters and, the more you use connections, the better the messages are transmitted and received between cells.
Cells grow new transmitters and receptors, meaning that they become better communicators and, also, more receptive and sensitive to incoming information. This makes brain circuits more efficient and quicker.
More connections makes thinking easier as the brain can use these new, robust connections.
The benefits of working out
Imagine for a moment that you and Arnie are attacked by a muscle eating virus at the same time. Given that he has a lot more to start with, he’s also left with a lot more at the end.
If you put this in brain terms, imagine that you, and someone who hasn’t worked out, both get attacked by a brain eating virus at the same time. As someone who’s spent the effort on building myelin and connections, you have a significant advantage over someone who hasn’t.
Not only do you have spare capacity and brain volume because you’ve worked out, also called cognitive reserve, the brain is also capable of using some of your new, additional connections in new ways.
Most particularly, rather than your brain deteriorating and losing function because cells are dying, it can switch functions to different parts and circuits, preserving the functions in new connections, even while old connections are disappearing.
So here’s the take home bit
For brain fitness, mental challenges must get harder.
Remember that, by itself, the brain will default to the familiar and the easy, in order to conserve energy, so you have to make it work harder.
The effort produces greater brain volume through myelin and new connections which, together, help make the brain more impervious to loss.
And you can do it all without spandex…
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Action potential, Cognitive reserve
What do you think?
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