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Keeping Your Brain Supple

by Patrick Reynolds

The people over on the YouTube channel "Bored Shorts" hit on a pretty clever idea and have been running with it ever since. They ask young children to imagine certain scenarios and play act their way through them, then go and record adults lip-syncing and acting out the kids lines. The result are delightful little short movies like this.


Pretty fun. It didn't take long for them to flip the equation on its head, and have kids reenact conversations between older people. Here's the result.

Watching a few of these "senior snippet" videos, you can't ignore how dull most of the conversations are. The older people dwell on such mundane topics, circle around and repeat themselves, use stilted sentence construction and drab word choice. Seeing those kind of conversations coming out of kids mouths brings on a strange feeling.

Around age 45, the human body starts to operate differently at every level. The system starts to lose the battle against entropy. The most visible signs of this are in the deterioration of muscle tone, skin elasticity, hair volume, and overall posture. Changes are happening below the surface as well. Organs operate less efficiently, joint cartilage thins out, bones become brittle, and circulation decreases. We're all familiar with these symptoms of ageing.

Just as the body becomes less supple and strong, the brain becomes more rigid with age. But how exactly? What happened in the 50 years between the kids and the older people in those videos?

Look at this picture. What is it?

Here's what's happening for you to come up with the answer "hammer". Photons from the screen blast into your retina, hitting light sensitive cells in that distinctive hammer-like pattern. These cells generate electric charges which travel along axon threads to neuronal end points. When the charge reaches one of these end points it releases a chemical neurotransmitter which activate other neurons that share that same meeting point (these meeting points are called synapses). Those neurons then repeat the signal transmission to the appropriate areas of your brain until the thought "hammer" can be formed. Just to call up the name of this object involves billions of neurons. We can't even pinpoint at which point the signals become the thought "hammer." When we zoom in all we see is electrochemical reactions. When we zoom out all we see is thoughts. Consciousness is mysterious like that.

The mind of a child has high neuroplasticity. It's flexible and able to handle new stimuli with ease. Neurons are sprouting in all directions, forming billions of synaptic connections. An Oxford University study showed that adults have 41% fewer neurons than newborn babies. This is why in the kid videos they easily jump from talk of penguins to robbers. The young brain can juggle multiple ideas at once, and has little trouble synthesizing them into a whole.

Around age 7 the brain begins to lose synaptic connections, a process which continues until adulthood when neuron loss stabilizes. I read an interesting theory once that this is why kids stop believing in Santa around age 7 or 8. Their brains simply can't tolerate the conflict between an all-knowing man with flying reindeer and their practical experience of how physics and time actually work. One of those concepts has to go, and it's usually Santa. 

This is also why, if you have a child between the ages of 3 and 7 in your life, it's absolutely incumbent upon you to treat that little brain in their heads with respect and care. Their brains are soaking up every stimuli like a sponge, so surround them with good stimuli! You only have a 4 year window to make any difference in this department so don't waste it.

Once the brain is stabilized in the early 20's. You're pretty much stuck with the number of neurons you've got. You shouldn't feel bad, there are still about 85 billion of them, which is roughly the number of stars in the universe. You can do a lot with that.

This is where an understanding of physical fitness comes in handy. For all intents and purposes, the brain behaves just like any of your hundreds of other body parts. A child is extremely flexible. I used to teach kids yoga and the kind of things the kids would pull off without even trying was amazing.

But as you get older, flexibility isn't something you get for free anymore. You have to work at it, spending a few hours a week doing nothing but reminding your muscles and joints that they're capable of more than they think. A lot of people don't bother. They're surprised a few years later when they find they can't touch their toes anymore.

Your brain works in exactly the same way. You lose the natural flexibility as you age, and if you don't proactively stretch your grey matter it becomes rigid. Like everything else in your body, your brain isn't fond of wasting energy. A muscle that isn't used becomes smaller. A synapse that goes unfired withers and the connection weakens. And if you neglect a synaptic connection for too long, the neurons retreat from each other completely and that pathway becomes closed off to you forever.

This is why we can't remember the foreign languages we learned in high school, or the name of the person who lived across the hall in college. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, "use it or lose it."

So how to not lose it? Or lose as little of it as possible? For our bodies, the key to maintaining an ageing body comes down to two things; nutrition and exercise. For the brain, maintaining good performance comes down to two things .... nutrition and exercise!

Nutrition

A varied diet of fresh, whole foods gives your brain the essential nutrients it needs to maintain good working order. Excess drinking has been definitively linked to dementia, so avoid that just as you would when going for a physical fitness result. The nutrition plan you follow when training your body is exactly the same one that you'd want to maintain good brain function. Two for the price of one.

Exercise

Physical exercise gets your blood pumping, and about 20% of that oxygenated blood goes right to your brain. Oxygen drives the ATP hydrolysis reaction that powers all those neurons. Deprive the brain of oxygen and neuron activity breaks down in about 4 minutes. No neuron activity means your dead. So getting oxygen up to the brain is kind of the only thing you really need to get done in this life. Exercise gets fresh blood up to your brain, allowing the organ to maintain and heal itself as optimally as it can. So get at least the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. It's another two for one bargain. Look better, think sharper.

Beyond physical exercise, you need to keep your synaptic connections renewed by continually challenging your brain with new stimuli. A lot of buzz was generated in the last decade with "brain training," which usually consists of puzzles and mini-games designed to sharpen your brain up. The research is in on this. It turns out that playing a lot of brain training games will make you really good at ... brain training games. In the words of a 2013 meta-analysis review: "Memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific effects that do not generalize." In other words, being really good at Sudoku doesn't mean you get a boost in other areas of brain function. But hey, you're really good at Sudoku. 

What does tend to keep overall brain function healthy is engaging in new activities, with a strong multiplier effect if that activity has a social component. Interacting with other people in the context of learning something new floods your brain with neurotransmitters, building new synaptic connections, opening up new pathways for your thoughts to lead you down. This is what irks me about brain training games. Sitting alone, working a crossword or tapping on a tablet mini-game removes the key social mulch that brains need to thrive. In terms of brain health, you would literally be better off exchanging stories with the homeless guy on the corner than sitting at home with a brain training game. 

When doing an exercise, it's very clear when your muscles are working hard, because they're burning painfully with excess lactic acid. But when exercising your brain, you can't feel the burn in the same way. What you can feel is that sense of frustration and wanting to quit completely. You can see this in action watching an older person get to grips with new technology. They have very little patience or sense of humor about it, and often shut down completely, with sullen comments like "it's beyond me" or "it's over my head." 

When you feel these sentiments rising in your own mind, it's a surefire bet that you've stumbled on something which would be healthy for you to pursue deeper and stretch your brain around. Take it in small chunks, starting from the basics and building up your knowledge step by step. Even if you never master the new subject, the act of trying keeps your brain supple and strong. Frustration is the brain "feeling the burn." Embrace it.

 

 

 

Frustration is the brain "feeling the burn." Embrace it.

The brain is a mysterious and complicated organ, but the rules for keeping it healthy are as simple as those you use for your body; wholesome food, regular exercise, and exposure to a wide variety of activities. Get these things right in the present and you'll be rewarded with a sharp mind in the future.

And the future is going to be a wild ride. The rise of computers, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, changing climate, shifting geopolitics, and space exploration are going to be mind blowing. I plan on having a mind that can take those blows and contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. I hope you're there to debate it with me!

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