Practical Neuroscience

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Today, we’re talking about the last of the four cornerstones of my philosophy of becoming better: practical neuroscience.

But don’t let the word neuroscience scare you. This stuff is actually pretty simple. I mean, it’s not brain surgery; it’s just brain science. By understanding some basic principles about how the brain works, and by putting them into practice, you can radically improve your life.

Brain Health

The first and most important component of practical neuroscience is brain health. Your brain is a physical organ just like the heart and the liver, so it needs physical maintenance. In fact, because your brain is your #1 asset, it should get more maintenance than the rest of your body. Not that this is a tradeoff – what’s good for your brain is also good for your body.

(Note: rather than providing citations for everything mentioned in this article, I’m providing links to my other articles, which do have the relevant citations.)

Eating healthy food gives your brain the nutrients and fuel it needs to perform at its best. Meanwhile, junk food harms the brain. Sugar is particularly bad.

Getting adequate amounts of high-quality sleep improves brain function, leading to improvements in learning, creativity, willpower, and mental health.

Physical exercise is also a critical component of brain health, improving nearly every measurable aspect of brain function.

Certain activities, such as play and meditation, improve brain health and brain function, while other activities, such as constant multitasking and too much screen time, can be harmful.

It’s especially important to take care of your prefrontal cortex, which is the primary seat of executive function and willpower. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain most susceptible to sleep-deprivation and hunger, but it is also the area of the brain that seems to benefit the most from physical exercise and meditation.

Behavioral Change

Behavioral change is possible because the brain itself can change. It’s not fixed; it’s malleable. The brain is a dynamic organ capable of growing new neurons and rewiring in response to new knowledge and new behaviors.

In addition to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, there are several other ways that the brain can change: Epigenetics can alter the expression of genes, neural connections can become insulated in myelin, blood flow patterns change, and neurotransmitter levels can go up or down. But all this fancy-sounding neuroscience really boils down to one simple truth: The brain is like a bunch of muscles that get stronger when you use them.

This means that any aspect of your mind can be improved. Want to be better at math? Practice math. Want to be more creative? Practice creativity (by, for example, taking an improv class). Want to be more intelligent? Practice relentless learning. Want to be more self-disciplined? Practice self-discipline. Seek out challenges because struggle makes you stronger.

In other words, swap out your fixed mindset for a growth mindset. Assume that improvement is possible (because it is), and do the work necessary to prove yourself right.

Even deeply ingrained negative behaviors, such as addiction, can be changed. It will be very hard at first because your brain has grown accustomed to your old ways, but it will get easier because your brain will adapt to your new way of living. Knowing this was profoundly helpful during my first few weeks of sobriety. However, you must also keep in mind that the old neural pathways completely never go away; they merely fall into disuse. An old, dry riverbed awaits the day you let yourself indulge, triggering the deluge of a full-blown relapse. Beware of “The River.”

Another critical thing to know about the neuroscience of behavioral change is that there is a dynamic interplay between your thoughts, emotions, and actions. This is the feedback loop that controls your life:

The good news is that, because you have control over your actions and because actions speak louder than thoughts, you can master this feedback loop and take charge of your life.

It’s hard to take action when your thoughts and your feelings are working against your best interests, but it can be done. The more frequently you take positive action, the more you will self-identify as that kind of person, and the easier it will become to take more positive action in the future. You can continue building positive momentum, requiring less and less willpower with each effort, until your new habit becomes automatic.

Lastly, a key finding from modern neuroscience is that the human brain remains malleable even into old age. It’s not too late to change because the clay never dries.

Learning

In my work as an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services, I use practical neuroscience every day to help students learn. I also use it to help myself learn, and you can too. I’ll briefly mention a few key ideas here, but if you’d like to learn more, I suggest exploring the blog I write for that company, which is full of tips for becoming better at learning.  

Learning something new is like bushwhacking through thick undergrowth. It’s supposed to be hard at first, but, as you begin to cut a path, it gets easier. The more often you walk that path, the easier it gets. Eventually, it is a well-established trail in the mind – a long-term memory. This principle also applies to forgetting: If you don’t walk the path often enough, it becomes overgrown and eventually disappears. Use it or lose it.

The default setting of the human brain is to forget almost everything we encounter, so if you want to remember something, you’ll have to convince your brain to care. This can be done through spaced repetition, making written product, and taking practice tests, among other active studying techniques.

You’ll be more creative and better at problem-solving if you manage your cognitive load. (This means write stuff down!) You’ll also want to tap into the power of your unconscious mind to figure things out by taking real breaks. The best way to facilitate this is to remain in airplane mode as much as possible.

Psychological Health

Finally, practical neuroscience can also help improve your mental health and happiness.

It’s important to recognize that, while we live in the modern world, we have brains that evolved to thrive in a very different environment. Understanding human nature can be very helpful in the pursuit of psychological health. It can inspire you to spend more time in nature (even in the winter), or it can help you understand that your needs and wants are normal rather than shameful.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have benefited from having a restless, wandering attention – something we would refer to today as a mild case of ADHD – so we have to deliberately cultivate our ability to balance focus with open awareness. In other words, we have to train ourselves to live and act with mindfulness.

As a survival mechanism, the brain naturally picks up on and clings to negative experiences, so we need to actively counteract this tendency by choosing to focus on the good, deliberately savoring enjoyable experiences, and keeping a gratitude journal.

It’s also easy to let the news trick you into feeling constantly threatened, and slip into a selfish survival-mode. Loving-kindness meditation is a great tool to counteract this tendency. We’re also biased to see ourselves as righteous, while simultaneously being overly critical of others. To counteract our innate tendency to be unfairly judgmental, it’s helpful to ask the uncomfortable question, “How am I that?”

You only get one brain for your one precious lifetime, so knowing a thing or two about how it works is a good idea. Applying the principles of practical neuroscience doesn’t require a degree from MIT; anyone can do it. And your brain and, really, you will thank you for it.

 

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