The human brain is complex. We do not know where or how memories are really stored. We really do not understand the brain’s role in our sense of self. Many scientists are diving into this philosophical abyss and calling it interpersonal neurobiology. Dr. Daniel Siegel is a personal favorite of mine.
However, as we begin to ponder the more difficult questions such as, “What is our mind?” we start to veer away from the scientific method. Brains can be poked, examined and dissected. The mind is beyond our measurable senses though. You cannot see, touch, smell, hear or taste a thought, but you know thoughts are real. We experience thoughts every second of everyday. And then there are dreams. What in the world are dreams and why do we experience them? It does not take long before even the most seasoned scientist has to venture into the intangible land of philosophy and metaphysics to really attempt at an explanation.
So what do we know? Very little. I have attended neuroscience/education conferences, watched many documentaries, read lots of research, and repeatedly heard that our theories and hypotheses are just that, intelligent speculation at best. We do believe that the brain is highly plastic, meaning it changes. We now believe that the brain changes constantly in response to everything we do and think until the day we die. That’s fun!
Even more fun, we are discovering the amazing world of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. So our environment makes a difference in how our genes express themselves. Even if we are dealt a really bad DNA hand, we may not experience the worst our genes could offer.
Many believe that leading a healthy, low stress life can influence how our genes mess with us, or don’t. I personally believe this one as I have been experimenting with it my whole life. When my mental and emotional states are good, I seem to have less issues that can be associated with the less than wonderful genes bestowed upon me. When I am emotionally, mentally or physically taxed, my genes seem to come out to play and not in a nice way.
Now that we are all walking around with a smartphone as if it were a necessary part of our autonomic system required for our very survival, companies are cropping up telling us that we can improve our brains by playing games on our computers, tablets and smartphones. Seems so simple and elegant, yet there is weak research to back up the claims of these games. Discover Magazine recently published a great article to help you understand the lack of sound research behind the notion that a brain game can make you or your aging parent smarter.
I especially appreciate the point the author makes about the transfer effect of playing games or doing any activity. If you practice crossword puzzles, does that do anything for your brain other than make you better at crossword puzzles? I believe the honest answer is, we don’t know. Teachers often share this frustration with me about many therapies and intensive academic interventions, they do not always see the transfer effect. Meaning while the student might get better at the very thing they are practicing, they cannot always generalize this knowledge to other settings.
Here is how I like to think of our brain and how to make the most of it. Most people understand the use it or lose it phrase. If you don’t use your muscles they will atrophy. If you don’t use your brain, you will not learn. Knowing that the brain responds to stimulation of all kinds, get out in the world and experience as much as you can in as many ways as possible. Think positive and happy thoughts. Let the negative ones go; they do not have to mean anything. That alone will have all kinds of positive impacts to your mind and possibly even your brain. Run/walk/move around, read/listen to a book, play a board game with other people, work, be with nature, laugh, talk to people, and never stop learning. That stuff is all free, and we can intelligently speculate that it is good for us.