neuroscience and exercising

Humans are made to move 

Who wants to walk 12 miles with me today? Any takers? I didn’t think so.

It might surprise you to find out that early humans traveled as much as 12 miles a day (today people walk an average of less than one-half mile!). They did this to find food, safety, and to explore. For thousands of years, exercise associated as a result of exploring and traveling did much to improve the brain functions of early man, and it still holds true for humans today.

Oxygen is vital to brain nourishment. Exercise does humans a lot of good because it helps our brains get more oxygen. When the body is moving during exercise it pumps blood and oxygen throughout the body and especially to the brain. Nitric Oxide is a flow regulating molecule that through exercise creates more blood vessels in the brain in some pretty key areas. This process of neurogenesis helps improve our cognitive ability as a result of exercise.

For thousands of years while our early ancestors were being active, the cortex of the human brain was getting bigger and bigger, and as a result humans were getting smarter and smarter.

Don’t be a couch potato

University of Washington Neurologist and author of the book Brain Rules, John Medina, shows that our society gives us a lot of reasons be a couch potato. Things like television, computers, and video games often allow people to sit around for hours on end with little body movement. Couple that with fast food and you wonder why America is the world’s fattest nation.

John Medina goes a step further and examined some of our most institutional environments that we created for ourselves. I’m talking about classrooms and cubicles, the mainstays of our educational and professional systems. Sadly, these environments are “anti brain growth environments.”

Think about it, for eight plus hours a day our children and coworkers are often sitting motionless at a desk or trapped in some fabric-lined neural jail cell. For our brains to function optimally we as humans need to move, and move often.

Bring back recess!

Today’s society is test-happy, and unfortunately a lot of academic leaders believe testing is the end-all-be-all of developing knowledge. Sadly this misguided mindset has lead to physical education and recess being eliminated from the school day so that more time can be spent on core subjects.

Is that really the right thing to do? Neuroscience teaches us that exercise facilitates intelligence and boosts memory formation. The resounding answer should be NO, it’s not the right thing to do! For the sake of our children’s mental and physical well being physical education and recess should be reinstated in schools where it’s gone missing.

Active Performance 

It is important to note that exercise alone will not improve your cognitive ability, but repeated tests have shown a strong association to improved cognitive performance. In fact it was found that physically fit kids and adults had faster cognitive response times compared to their overweight counter parts.

Building upon the principle that exercise not only leads to a healthy body, but also a healthy mind, activity and exercise were found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer Disease by 60% and stroke by an amazing 57% in a person’s lifetime.

The great news is that you don’t have to run marathons or do crossfit to benefit from exercise (but they don’t hurt). All you have to do is walk about 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and be more conscious of your dietary intake. It really doesn’t take much.

Today, we have the same brains our early ancestors did that walked 12 miles a day. So be active and make the most of your brain. I’ll leave you with this quote from John Medina that sums up why humans are made to move.

“We were not used to sitting in a classroom for 8 hours at a stretch. We were not used to sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours at a stretch. If we sat around the Serengeti for 8 hours – heck, 8 minutes – we were usually somebody’s lunch.”

For more neuroscience information on exercise please check out Brain Rules by John Medina. You can see the cover in the bookshelf section of social-brain.

Sweet Brains are Made of these… The Neuroscience of Sleep and Learning

Nap time at work. Oh sweet temptation...

It’s 2:00pm on workday, and you’re sitting at your desk staring blankly at the computer screen. Your eyes narrow as you fight to keep them open. Suddenly you slip, if for just a second, to sleep. Your head drops toward your chest, but at the last second you catch yourself, and now you’re sitting at your desk slightly startled, but still painfully tired and hoping no one just saw you. What you wouldn’t give for a nap at that moment, but you drudge on with the rest of your workday in your dazed and tired state…

The described scenario is one that we have all been through. It’s a scenario that we share with hundreds of millions of Americans each week. In fact, it’s estimated that sleep deprivation is responsible for $100 billion dollars lost each year for US businesses alone. Growing up we were all taught that sleep is important and that we need our 8 hours a night. Unfortunately for most of us that was all the instruction we received about sleep. Sleep has long been a mystery for neuroscientists, however recently studies have given us much more useful insight into our sleep patterns.

The Neuroscience of Sleeping

A healthy human brain is based on a balance of neurotransmitters and energy. In regards to sleep the human brain has two opposing forces that are always “at war” with each other, thus creating a balance. One force fights to keep us awake and the other force fights to keep us asleep. Together this “war” regulates itself in a cycle that when followed keeps us functioning in a healthy optimal state. This was proved in the research by famed sleep researcher, Dement.  Dement did a lot research to discover how we sleep, but much of the mystery remains as to why we sleep.

It was originally thought that we slept to rest our brains; however that turned out to be incorrect. In reality our sleeping brains spend just as much energy our awake brains for 80% of the sleep cycle. So while our bodies are resting our brains are as active as ever. Many researchers look at sleeping brain activity and can make a strong link to learning and cognition.

In a military conducted study a soldier who lost one night's worth of sleep showed a 30% drop in cognitive skill. when the soldier lost two nights of sleep he displayed a 60% loss in cognitive skill. if you're in college and reading this you better think twice about pulling that all nighter.

Do we sleep to Learn?

John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, tells of a story about an accountant who talked in his sleep every night. This accountant didn’t just talk randomly, however. Each night this accountant would recall the numbers and statistics, with accuracy, from his day’s work. It’s believed that our brains work like this accountant’s brain in sleep – recalling and consolidating the information we learn through out the course of our days. The neurons of the brain show vigorous rhythmical activity when you’re asleep – perhaps replaying what you learned that day. (Brain Rules, Medina. 2008)

in a haste to return home for the night researchers accidentally left the electrodes still attacted to their test rat. they were studying the rat's neural activity while it navigated a maze. when they reviewed the rat's brain activity from sleep it was shockingly similar to the brain patterns demonstrated while the rat learned to navigate the maze. sleeping to learn...

The conscious human brain processes all sorts of information through out the day. The types of information we consciously process are not limited to the just the empirical, like the accountant’s statistics and numbers or school work. Because the human brain is highly emotional we process information that has emotional content as well. Emotional memory could play a role in our dreams/nightmares. It would seem that each night our brain turns off the outside world to process, reprocess, and then fine tune our cognition. Losing sleep can strongly negatively affect your ability to learn properly.

Promote Napping!

The truth is that everybody experiences the dreaded “nap zone” each day because it’s part of our biology. The drive for the afternoon nap is universal, and because of that it should be respected. The ever common “9-5 workday” is not a natural occurrence. It was actually invented out of necessity for the industrial revolution to ensure productivity.  And here we are a hundred years later still obeying a schedule set forth by men who pushed buttons and pulled levers. I am not saying we have to change our work days, but just accommodate for nap time.

NASA researchers found out that a 26 minute nap equated to a 34% increase in a pilot’s performance. Napping actually increased performance! The 36th president of the United State of America Lyndon B. Johnson routinely would close the doors to the oval office, put on his pajamas and take a 30 minute nap. Refreshed from his nap he was ready to take on the rest of his long day as leader of the free world. It’s amazing what a nap can do for productivity. This is evidence that the design of our work days should be more sensitive to our biological needs and drives. Some companies, like Google, and even schools are taking a serious look into “nap time” and the design of their days to accommodate for sleep needs and cycles.

Sleep researchers discovered that the adolescent brain requires 9.25 hours of sleep on average. to accomodate this research one Minnesota school district moved the start time of their school days from 7:20am to 9:00am. It was no surprise that this moved proved to be successful when the average GPA increased school wide and test scores jumped.

Sleep on it

In the end we all will have spent an astonishing 1/3 of our lives sleeping. My advice is to take time to truly understand your need for sleep. 8 hours has long been the recommendation, but some require more and some require less. The link between sleeping and learning is extremely intimate and should be respected. If your livelihood is based on your cognitive performance, by all means, get your rest. If you need more motivation, people who get the proper amount of sleep also have healthier bodies in addition to their healthy minds. Thank you, and good night.

Brain Boogie: Music and Your Brain

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Musical Miracles

A doctor, with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, enters the room of a stroke patient in a neurological clinic in up state New York.  Bertha, who recently suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain, sits in silence in her wheel chair facing the window. The doctor greets her with a “good morning”, but there is no response from Bertha. She has lost the ability to speak as a result of her stroke, so she sits there silently, yet her eyes indicate she has so much to say. Silence continues to fill the room as doctor settles his things and adjusts his guitar so he can begin to play. As he begins to strum the guitar an interesting thing happens – the room comes to life. He sings out “Hello, how are you today?” and the Bertha sings back, “I am feeling fine, thank you. It’s good to see you again.”  As soon as Bertha realized she could sing, she realized that she could communicate again, something that she was unable to do just a few seconds ago. [Power Pop, Glausiusz. 2008]

The Meaning of Music

Much about music and our brains sill remains a mystery to neuroscience. We are still uncertain about the purpose of music. Some psychologists hypothesize that music is rooted in our evolution and is a differentiating factor in helping us procreate. Others theorize that music has healing powers, like witnessed with Bertha, and that it plays a vital role in stress regulation. And some cognitive psychologists believe that music is nothing more than beats and notes that serve no major roll than simply to just entertain us. As a musician (don’t beat me up, I play the violin) and a neuroscientist I have a profound respect for the entire spectrum of the musical experience.  In my experiences with people and music there is something powerful, emotional, and deeply unconscious that links music, the brain, and people together.

School of Rock

To investigate the mystery of music researcher Sandra Trehub has set up a lab that focuses primarily how babies perceive music.  The reason being is that if there is some innate musical ability in our brains a baby can perhaps shed some light on this phenomenon.  Interestingly enough in tests babies were able to acknowledge the incorrect notes played in a major scale, and what’s more impressive they were able to do this better than adults.  It’s as if they were better attuned to the building blocks of music. Music is vital to caring for children. It helps them learn and can be extremely resourceful in daily tasks like helping the child fall asleep. Maybe we were born to rock?

Marketing Music

It would seem that corporate America has caught on to power that music has over consumers. Millions are spent each year to brand specific types of music for specific stores. Businesses like Starbucks, Banana Republic, and Urban Outfitters are among some of the major names to brand a style of music to their stores. Some major corporations have evolved their old jingles into a specific musical scale that is not only catchy, but also is consistent with their marketing message. Jewel Osco has been testing a pentatonic scale that plays twice in ads; once at the beginning and once at the end. Rush Healthcare also does the same thing using the famed classical piece Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach.

Multisensory Music

Music affects each of us in unique ways. Aside from hearing the music, you can feel the music, and even become entranced by the music as you lose yourself completely. Music has the ability to connect with us on several levels at the same time, and it’s because of that we form strong connections with certain songs. Music has the ability to remind us of certain people, a certain time in our life, or a certain feeling. Most artists will pour themselves and their emotions into their work and when it all comes together it can form an emotional link to the listener. And as we’ve discussed a few times on this website if you can bring an emotional element to an experience or a memory it stands a better chance of being recalled in the long term.  Studies have shown a link between music and recalling past memories in elderly patients.

Music In, Stress Out

I will always remember coming back to my room my sophomore year of college to find my roommate, Adam, laying on the couch in complete darkness listening to a live Dave Matthews Band concert that way playing loudly on the stereo. Puzzled, I asked him if everything was okay. He said he said this was his stress relief when he feels really overwhelmed. So I closed the door and left to finish my studying at the coffee shop. Little did I know that Adam was on to something.

Research supports that music does in fact lower stress, both in listening to music and creating music. In one study cortisol, a hormone that is linked to stress, was shown to decrease in test subjects that spent time playing a drum along with music in a group setting. In other studies the same effect was reached with just listening to music. When cortisol levels remain high over time people run the risk of becoming ill because their immunes systems are weakened. If music helps keep cortisol levels low it may help keep us healthy in the long run.

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

The Mix Tape Connection

I have several friendships that were started on the basis of music. Creating music with people is another creative outlet to understand and connect with one or more people. After all, conversation is 90% non verbal. When you “jam” with other people you’re forced to speak a new language and to create something completely unique. In keeping with the theme of social intelligence you are forced to listen to others before you play, which is key to forming mutually beneficial relationships. However, simply just sharing music (legally, of course) can improve relationships as well. We’ve all made a mix tape for a special someone at some point in our youth. Sometimes music can emotionally express what we simply cannot or are scared to express. In some cases music is the bridge over a relationship gap.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Decrescendo

Though I have provided some facts on how music is beneficial to our brains the jury still remains out on the purpose of music. I firmly believe with all this information it is impossible that music is just simply for our entertainment. Music is pumped through the loud speakers of our sports stadiums to get the fans excited. Music is used to praise god, rouse armies, and bury the dead. Music reaches us in ways that no other experience can and it can help us get through difficult experiences in our lives. Although we are just beginning to understand the link between music and our brains it’s safe to say that we might never completely unravel the mystery of music. Some things, however, are better left to mystery.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Differently

men and women

Men’s Brains, Women’s Brains, Whatever

 

It would seem that our society is finally starting to shake free the bonds of our outdated sexist ideology that has long dominated the culture in this country. A century ago women weren’t even allowed to vote. Today women are boldly going where men feared they would eventually go if given the chance: the boardroom, the corner office with windows, the high bench, and this list goes on as women are performing in positions that were long held for their male counterparts. Yet, this assimilation into female leadership has not been easy. Look no further than the democratic primaries from this past election and you can recall CNN making a stink about Hillary Clinton being the focus of sexism in politics, and SNL portraying Senator Clinton as a stern, somewhat butch, woman who was rigid to say the least.

 

Although women have broken down the equality barrier, the perceptual barrier stands tall for those who wish to be leaders and contributors to success in this country. In a study conducted with four test groups made up of equal men and women, the groups were given the job description of a vice president of the company as well as a description of personal attributes. The only factor that changed between the groups was the gender of the VP. Interestingly enough the gender change was enough to change the perceptions from group to group. Though both VPs were considered to be competent what differed between the man and woman was rather they were considered “likeable” or not. In the words of researcher and biologist John Medina, “The man was a hotdog. The woman was a bitch.” Upon reading this my mind drifted back to the primary elections of 2008 and I recall so many people saying Hillary was qualified but she wasn’t really relatable, which in mind is like saying, “she’s not that likeable.” So here we stand welcoming new players to the game yet we’re still playing by the same old rules. Something has to change.

 

Senator Clinton would have been a good President, but it was difficult for her to over come perceptions from being too stern and not relateable.

Senator Clinton would have been a good President, but it was difficult for her to over come perceptions from being too stern and not relateable.

Wait, You Mean To Tell Me Boys and Girls are Different?!?!

 

Amidst all this equality talk we forgot that men and women are different. For the sake of keeping with the theme of this amazing website let’s hone in on our brains. Men’s and Women’s brains differ in a variety of ways: anatomical architecture, memory formation and processing, emotions, language, vision and all that manifests itself in our behaviors. Men and women perceive differently and as a result we both operate differently. Now here is the important thing to remember, because our society gets this backwards all the time: the differences in men’s and women’s brains do NOT equate one sex performing better in general. Understanding and attuning to these differences will go along way in setting ourselves up for success in the long run.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen

 

Most people are actually unaware that the natural genetic default for creating a human life is female. This means that the blueprint for human life is a woman. So ladies, you can go tell Adam to shove it because Eve is where it’s really at and while you’re at it you can tell him to stop eating all the fruit from sacred trees, too.  In primates like chimpanzees (our genetic cousins) the female chimps are often the ones that exhibit tool use and innovation in their troops.

 

There are anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brain in every one of the four lobes of the brain. Here are some areas where women differ for men: Women on average have a thicker (thicker is good) frontal and prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area that is associated with decision making and higher level thought. Women also have a thicker corpus callosum than men which is the bridge of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. The amygdala, an area of the brain that is related to stress and emotional response, is larger in women than in men as well.

 

Now it’s wrong to justify personal behaviors through neuroanatomy. However, it is right to justify the behaviors of a population of women through neuroanatomy. Relatively speaking women in general tend to have a wider range of emotions, which can be linked back to the amygdala. Looking at the corpus callosum we can also begin to see that improved conductivity between the hemispheres allows for better multitasking, something that women tend to be better at then men. Women also tend to out perform men in language ability as well, and we can link that to our prefrontal cortex. Now ladies, before you start dishing out high fives and chest bumping each other we remember the theory of balance, and for balance every positive has to have a negative.

 

Women are more likely to have anxiety related problems. Most anorexics are women, and women are also more likely than men to develop bouts of depression. On the other side of the coin men have a greater chance of being antisocial, developing schizophrenia, drug abuse problems, and mental retardation. You see there is just as much good stuff as potential bad stuff going on in both of our brains.  The only thing that might dictate success is that task at hand.

 

Gender Memory

 

This is extremely interesting. Two groups of men and women were shown a video of a particularly horrifying accident involving a little boy getting hit by a car. While the men and women watched the video their brain activity was

How do you remember this incident? It'll differ depending if you're male or female.

How do you remember this incident? It'll differ depending if you're male or female.

monitored by fMRI. The very sight of someone getting hit by a car is emotionally salient, yet in this study men and women showed different brain activity in their amygdala regions of the brain. The right side of the amygdala in men lit up and in women their left side of the amygdala lit up. Two weeks later the groups were asked to recall the video of the boy getting hit by the car. The men better recalled the “gist” of the video and the women better recalled the details of the video, such as the boy was holding a soccer ball. The same video produced two different perceptions and two different recollections. Put those recollections together and you have a complete memory in tact. This holds true for emotionally heightened memories like a first date or a recent argument.

 

Gender Communication

 

Researcher Deborah Tannen did some really amazing research relating to how little boys and little girls verbally communicate with each other and how that shapes our communication patterns into adulthood. She spent a lot of time observing how kids communicate and form bonds of friendship and trust. No surprises here; boys and girls communicate very differently and girls tend to be better at it. To crudely summarize her 30 years of work girls use language and conversation to cement friendship and bonds. Along with conversation girls are great at utilizing the nonverbal aspects of conversation as well, like maintaining eye contact and physical cues. Boys on the other hand rarely make eye contact and prefer to use physicality and commotion to cement bonds of friendship and trust. The female approach to communication is “let’s do this together.” The male approach is “I can do this better than you.” This really doesn’t change all that much as we get older.

 

Bringing it on Home Social Intelligence Style

 

In regards to success social intelligence is the key determining factor. We know that there are differences in men and women and we must respect those differences. Socially intelligent people understand and realize how to get the most out of every individual. If you’re a manager and you have a team of both and women working underneath you it makes no sense to treat every person the same. We’re all different, so treat us differently, but in a way that fosters our success and harmonizes the groups’ effort. If you’re a leader, man or woman, you’re going to run into some opposition – be it a work style conflict or difference of opinion – you can better prepare yourself by understanding these differences and gaming planning proactively. Attuning to differences allows you to tailor your message and communication pattern into one that will successfully be understood by whomever it is you’re speaking with or reaching out to. In general our brains may be pretty different, but together two brains are always better than one.