4 Essential (and Overlooked) Facts About Your Brain and Your Mind

Brain fitness for fun and profit…and survival and creativity and…but you get it, right?

Brain.LarryBrodyby Alvaro Fernandez

“Our brains and minds are far from set in stone due to genet­ics or age. Grow­ing evi­dence sug­gests beyond a rea­son­able doubt that what we do at every sin­gle day has an impact on brain fit­ness that very same day and also later in life.”

 An aspir­ing clar­inetist begins by get­ting a sense of the way the instrument’s sounds are pro­duced by the air she blows through it. A dri­ver must be acquainted with var­i­ous vehi­cle fun­da­men­tals, such as adding gas, accel­er­at­ing, and read­ing the speedome­ter. It is no dif­fer­ent with the brain. Max­i­miz­ing your brain’s health and per­for­mance begins with a basic under­stand­ing of how it works and how it evolves across the lifespan.

The human brain evolved to help us oper­ate in com­plex, chang­ing envi­ron­ments by con­tin­u­ally learn­ing and adapt­ing. Suc­cess­fully doing so involves a vari­ety of brain func­tions and abil­i­ties, includ­ing var­i­ous types of mem­ory, lan­guage, emo­tional reg­u­la­tion, atten­tion, and plan­ning. While these func­tions are often car­ried out by dis­tinct neural net­works, they are fun­da­men­tally inter­de­pen­dent and thriv­ing in the envi­ron­ment we face each day depends on the func­tion­al­ity of all these brain func­tions, whether cog­ni­tive, emo­tional, or executive.

For exam­ple, imag­ine that you are dis­cussing an ambi­tious new project with a client. The sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult, both because the impor­tance of the deal for your career means you are anx­ious to close it to your advan­tage, and because the client is being quite con­de­scend­ing. The pres­sure to suc­ceed and the need to refrain from get­ting angry make it hard for you to “stay cool” and think straight. This turns out to be a good illus­tra­tion of the ways that we depend on “emo­tional self-regulation”, and demon­strates the fact that emo­tional and cog­ni­tive func­tions are tightly interconnected.

Brain func­tions are not fixed at birth or after child­hood, as our brains con­stantly change over a life­time: over the short term in response to our daily thoughts, sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and actions, as well as over the long term, as we con­tinue grow­ing wiser – and older. The good news is that we are not rel­e­gated to pas­sively watch­ing these changes occur. Our brains respond to basic lifestyle fac­tors that we have a large degree of con­trol over, and neu­ro­plas­tic­ity (the brain’s life­long capac­ity to change and rewire itself in response to stim­u­la­tion and expe­ri­ence) is at the core of the abil­ity to actively improve spe­cific func­tions through train­ing. Genet­ics is not destiny.

In par­tic­u­lar, it is impor­tant to keep in mind a few fun­da­men­tal, and often over­looked, facts:

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