Wellness Pyramid – Brain Enhancement

Exercise is centrally located in the wellness pyramid because it does it all. The endorphins will help with Contentment; the antioxidant defense system will help with Brain Maintenance; the brain-derived neurotrophic factor will help with Brain Enhancement. Exercise alone will not achieve any of the above; I’ve covered other things to consider for Contentment and Brain Maintenance; let us now explore what else works to enhance the brain.

Brain enhancement refers to activities that stimulate the neurotransmitters of the brain to wire or rewire. Dexterity is one such activity. Indeed, an early test for cognitive decline is whether you can balance on one foot for twenty seconds. Do not try this every day, for you eventually will succeed simply through a form of rote learning, but every year or so you might want to see what happens.

The best dexterity for brain health is finger dexterity. All the parts involved in precisely moving your fingers call for greater brain power than any other activity, including problem solving. Research has indicated greater longevity and/or brain health for people who do things like knit or play instruments.

If you’ve never played an instrument before you might want to start for another key activity for brain enhancement, active learning. Learning to read music is like learning a language, one of the best forms of active learning that will rewire your brain. Learning complicated computer software is another example.

There are plenty of hobbies that involve active learning, but seek hobbies that consistently lead your mind towards “new horizons.” An example of something that really does not promote active learning are many of those miracle brain games or puzzles being advertised. You are learning something new up to a point, but then you are becoming more efficient at what you’ve learned, like becoming practiced with balancing on one leg.

I do an easy Sudoku puzzle every night, but not for Brain Enhancement. I’ve long ago learned the formulas to solve these puzzles, but because they are easy they help my mind relax before bedtime. Similarly, I don’t mean to discourage you from doing brain games or puzzles, just to keep in perspective what they really do for you. Indeed, why don’t you do both some type of brain game and a hobby that constantly engages your mind in learning new things?

The two very simple activities that very well may boost your brain the most are hugging and laughing. Hugging releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” Oxytocin reduces stress, inflammation, fatigue and blood pressure. Ten second hugs are purported to fight off infections; twenty second hugs fight off heart disease. I’ve seen a couple sources, including a TED talk, recommend eight hugs a day to flood the mind with brain enhancing oxytocin. I don’t think this was empirically determined. There may be a threshold for the maximum benefits from hugging, yet ever more hugs may mean ever more benefits. I like to think the latter is true.

Laughter’s great benefit lies in how much of the brain is being engaged, similar to finger dexterity. Most emotional responses are confined to the frontal lobe area of the brain, but laughter also engages both hemispheres of the cortex, the occipital lobe and motor sections. With all those sections of the brain engaged, that’s a lot of neurotransmitters firing away! A good belly laugh provides additional cardiovascular benefits, while even the joy from the subtlest of giggles releases stress-reducing endorphins. There is a great deal of truth in the saying “laughter is the best medicine.”

Hugging and laughing are the most physical, expressive manifestations of socializing and joy. A high quality of life, with good brain and emotional health, features plenty of both.

Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. The same can be said for memories. A powerful agent for building memories is awe.

To tell you the truth, I stumbled upon awe while searching for the impacts of beauty. Beauty in all forms moves me personally. Whenever I pondered my own mortality, considering what I would do if I knew I only had a year to live, I always resolved to travel in search of the most beauty to fill the soul in my remaining time.

Unfortunately, searching for beauty and health provides a different set of results than I want, with a focus on appearances and self-esteem. What popped out instead as I researched this was awe. There is a caveat with awe. Positive awe provides health benefits, negative awe undermines them. For example, awe for a loving God likely contributes to your wellness; awe for an angry God likely makes you less well. I was never a fan of Calvinism or Jonathan Edwards (the preacher).

You know what I call what causes positive awe? Beauty, whether we are referring to the beauty/awe of love, a sunset or music. Beauty, er, awe stimulates both curious and emotional regions of the brain. The emotional side preserves the memory while the curious side learns from the wonderment of awe, er, beauty.

Arches NP, Photo by Kirk Sinclair

The benefits of awe extend beyond enhancement. Awe induces an anti-inflammatory response, important for brain maintenance, while also relieving stress. I would not rank it ahead of exercise in terms of overall benefits for the brain and body, but there is the extra benefit to our souls.

Dexterity, learning, socializing, joy and awe, er, beauty. In addition to exercise these are your best bets for enhancing your brain. In my next and last installment for Alzheimer’s Awareness month I’ll tie these together with suggested lifestyle activities.

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