Building better brains (Part 2 of 2)


With a free set of steak knives!

With a free set of steak knives!

People are lazy

Admit it.

If there were a way to get FIT, lose WEIGHT, be SMART, get RICH and be totally and utterly FULFILLED as a person, in 3 EASY PAYMENTS of $49.95, with a full, no risk, MONEY BACK GUARANTEE which is fully and completely endorsed by the guy on TV who seems really convinced it works because he’s smiling so much and someone named Dave R from Florida has written a testimonial that he is fitter, leaner, smarter, richer, more fulfilled and not gullible and he really likes the FREE STEAK KNIVES, thanks, and all you had to do was take this pill, then it’s a fair bet that many, many people would swallow it.

Maybe you would, too?

Sadly, it isn’t usually the case.

There is no substitute for effort and focus

In Part 1 of Building better brains, we made the following observations:

  1. Attention is crucial for effort
  2. Effort is crucial for building brain tissue
  3. Brain tissue is crucial for developing resilience against brain degeneration as we age

and asked, what kind of attention, on what activity, or activities, will give us global, rather than just specific, benefit, so we can live well and perform well, to the end?

There is no easy fix, no magic bullet, no magic wand, no dvd, no motivational speaker or guru, no pill.

But there is a way.

Warning. Long post this one…

Must be Effortful, and Focused

No exercise program worth its salt would pretend that you can get fit or build muscle mass without effortful activity. More than that, it needs to exhaust your muscles, to the point of  damage, so that they set about developing themselves to cope with the repeated effort.

No easy fix here, despite some outrageous attempts.

Similarly, if you want to have shirt-ripping biceps without having to turn green, then your work needs to be focused.

On your biceps.

Most exercise regimes use targeted activity as part of their plan, with exercises designed specifically for the muscle group or fitness goal you have in mind.

If you feel like it, here are two awesome attempts otherwise

If not, skip to “Same for your brain”.

The Hawaii Chair, perversely, takes the work out of work out. No effort required! And how cool do you look at work at the same time? What’s it targeting?

Your credit card. Or your laziness.

And before those wacky South Koreans gave us Gangnam style, horse riding was already galloping into view with ACE POWER. (You have to say it in an awesome speaking-inside-a-cave kind of kind of voice for it to sound cool.)

From the YouTube explanation… “From Korea, for those who like to ride the horse in front of TV and in home comfort of their own space. For all family member, this home mechanical equestrian system will meet for all the family need. It help device to fitness you up! And reach the health goal! Live longer for now! Be your Ace Power!!”

I bet they sold a bunch…


Here they are

My apologies if you have both the ACE POWER and the Hawaii Chair in your closet…

Same for your brain

Many brain fitness programs require increasing effort, on novel tasks, targeting a particular ability.

So far, so good.

And for some areas, such as attention, there may well be improvements in attention outside the particular exercise or game. We saw last time that many activities help us develop skill only within the task, and do not translate to benefits in other ways.

Brain fitness activities run the same risk. You might get better at the game or activity, but that’s all.

But there’s one, effortful, focused, activity that outstrips others in its ability to build better, bigger, more resilient brains.

No kaftan required


But by meditation I don’t mean you need to rush off and buy a kaftan, learn the music to kumbaya, practice the Lotus position or start burning various plants.

I do mean that your meditation must be based around effortful and focused attention.

Effortful, focused attention for a sustained period. Clearly this follows the same key principles as general muscle building and fitness.

Meditation has, of course, been around for centuries, and is often linked with some form of Eastern spirituality, such as Buddhism.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama, whose monks would most probably qualify as the Olympic athletes of meditation, is a keen neuroscience buff and, about 10 years ago, agreed for his monks to be tested while they meditated.

It’s this kind of rigor that has been increasingly applied to meditation, and which makes it so useful for us. These days, most common forms of meditation, at least for Westerners, are detached from spirituality.

And for our purposes, we want to know, in a brain sense, rather than a  spiritual sense, what works, and what we need to do.

We need to do a little tour to gather our evidence, and let’s begin in Massachusetts…


While there are a number of styles of meditation, Mindfulness is a common, non-spiritual form.

You can find mindfulness centers just about everywhere, including the Mindfulness Center at the University of Massachusetts, which is where much of the modern approach began, and which includes their excellent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.

We’ve already talked about the effect of stress in the brain, and managing stress well is important for brain health. But mindfulness goes further.

There are various ways of defining what mindfulness is, although all of them revolve around the deliberate and careful allocation of our attention. Tellingly, founder of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offers this:

This “work” involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness…

In other words, effortful, focused activity, for sustained periods.

Thanks Massachusetts. Come to Washington.

What mindfulness does

In research published mid-2012David Levy and Jacob O. Wobbrock from the University of Washington, studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on multitasking.

The myth of multitasking is an especially enduring one. We simply don’t perform two (or more) things at the same time, when they require the same kind of attention.

Yes, we can drive and talk to a passenger simultaneously, because they require different approaches, and driving, for most people, is a mostly automatic task requiring little mental effort, leaving us free to talk.

No, we can’t write an essay, check Facebook, message and email at the same time, as they require the same kinds of effort and attention.

Rather, we toggle back and forth between them, switching our attention from task to task. Younger people seem able to do this better merely because they are faster at switching, not better able to multitask.

The issues in multitasking are distraction, and the time taken to re-focus on the next task, during which we lose traction on the task.

In their study, Levy and Wobbrock wanted people to perform familiar office tasks in a short period, as if they were at work. Once done, and baseline performance recorded, people were broken into three groups.

  1. Group 1 received two hours meditation training each week, for eight weeks,
  2. Group 2 got the same training, just later
  3. Group 3 took an eight week course in body relaxation

And the experiment was repeated.

Levy and Wobbrock note

those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer
and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance, as compared with the other two groups. In addition, both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed.

These are important conclusions for how we function, especially if you think about their results in terms of productivity and performance, or lost time and wasted effort.

From Washington, let’s head to back to Massachusetts, to Harvard.

Growing brains

Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and collaborators, have this to say (the highlights are mine):

Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Meditation grows brain tissue.

Next stop, California.

But wait, there’s more

In February 2012, Eileen Luders and Arthur W. Toga, from the UCLA School of Medicine, reported their findings on growing the gray matter of brain tissue.

They note that most studies concern just the general thickness of gray matter, and that we may be missing something by focusing only on that.

What they set out to measure was the folding of the brain. If you took your skull off, you see the folds in the outside surface of the brain, with all its hills and valleys. The hills are called gyri (singular is gyrus) and the valleys are called sulci (singular is sulcus).

More folds give us more surface area and, thus, more tissue. It also gives us more mental grunt, or cognitive horsepower.

What they discovered was, much like the rings of a tree, that time spent in meditation was, in some places, correlated with increased folding. Generally speaking, the more time people had spent meditating, the more brain tissue they had grown, in areas related to managing distractions, monitoring ourselves, and attention.

And there’s more still, a lot more, but let’s pull some threads together.

A quick summary

Meditation will strengthen and thicken those areas of your brain responsible for emotional regulation, attention (and not being distracted), learning, memory, and empathy (being able to understand your own thoughts and feelings and those of others). Importantly, it strengthens both the number of connections, and the strength of those connections.

Of itself this is impressive.

Some, but not all, of these benefits are evident after people stop meditating but, unlike most activities, the benefits are far-reaching, and not limited to the activity itself. And it’s here that we find the real gold.

Last stop, Ohio.

Protection by default

Meditation is, as we’ve said, effortful, focused and sustained.

By contrast, when we’re doing nothing, by which I mean not exercising the brain on a task deliberately, the brain is at rest. It’s awake, but cruising, daydreaming even, but not focused on things outside of itself.

It’s never actually doing nothing; the brain is always busy on something.

But when it’s cruising like this, it’s doing so using a network of interconnected systems called the default mode network, or just the default network. It’s involved in introspection (thinking about your own mind, thoughts and feelings), imagination and creativity, thinking about the future, retrieving memories, and gauging the perspectives of others.

Very young children show little evidence of it. As we age, it develops and strengthens. But as we continue to age, into middle and late adulthood, it declines and weakens, with implications for older adults.

But adults who have engaged in even brief periods of mindfulness meditation begin to turn back the clock of the default network. The more we meditate, the younger our default network becomes, the more youthful it looks, the more in control we are of our thoughts.

And here’s why that’s so mouthwatering

A weakened default network is implicated in autism, schizophrenia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It doesn’t allow us to allocate attention wisely or to manage distraction.

It means we can’t control our own thoughts as well.

It’s also involved in Alzheimer’s disease. In fact the destructive plaques of Alzheimer’s disease target this system, systematically destroying it.

Unless you’ve meditated, mindfully.

Recent research out of Ohio State University has shown that, alone, mindfulness might have protective effects, by fortifying the DMN.

The areas of the DMN are the very areas attacked by Alzheimer’s disease and which are susceptible to aging, and they are the very areas that meditation strengthens.


Meditation fortifies those areas that Alzheimer’s disease attacks.

So here’s the take home bit


Effortful because we have to work at it.

Focused, on attention, and those areas of the brain that will keep us well. By its very nature, meditation is an attention-based task.

Usually 8×2 hour sessions, then regular, disciplined practice.

Call it insurance for your mind.

Probably worth it, no?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Mindfulness, Default mode network

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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