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Q. BRAIN GYM


For those of you who exercise, we can safely assume that you are looking for certain benefits such as increased strength, flexibility, energy and enhanced mood, not to mention good looks. So why is it that many of us donʼt feel the same way about our brain? Why do we assume that the brain requires no enhancement or in the least, some amount of attention? Scientific data clearly document the many benefits of exercising our brain. Henceforth, I will call it “brain gym” for lack of a better term (please let me know if you have an alternative phrase). For this article, we shall remain focused on what is going on inside the skull and the rest of our body. We wonʼt speculate on the connection between the brain and the mind or of any spiritual or religious matters.

The brain, similar to many organs in the body, adheres to the “use it or lose it” dictum. The brain either improves its functions or when left alone, steadily deteriorates over time. Toxins, poor circulation, high blood pressure, diabetes, infections, inflammations and the normal again process cause functional or structural deterioration. So does lack of use. The brain loves to be stimulated with activities such as playing music, problem solving, learning a new language (anyone speak Thai)? Through a process called “neuroplasticity” the brain cells, with repeated stimulation for a specific function, will grow in numbers in certain regions, enhancing performance. London cab drivers have large hippocampus (a primary memory area) due to their extensive memorization of city streets and famous landmarks; violinists have larger brain mass involving the area of brain that deals with hand movements; senior citizens who meditate regularly (45 minutes or more daily) actually add brain tissue in the area of the brain which deals with “executive functions” while non-mediators steadily lose brain tissue in the same area due to the normal “aging” process.

Some of the methods known to enhance brain health are exercise, nutrition, adequate rest/sleep, stress reduction and maintaining a good cardiovascular condition (blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, etc.) In my opinion, all the exercise coupled with vitamins and supplements for brain health may be inadequate if we leave out the emotional and cognitive aspects of brain function. An area that is becoming increasingly studied is the effects of meditation on brain function and structure. We have already mentioned that the brain changes structurally (that is, new brain tissues are formed). But what are the functional changes? There is good evidence that meditation calms the alarm “center” directly and indirectly, diminishing our reactivity to emotions such as fear, anger or panic. Meditation lowers heart rate and blood pressure but most importantly, reduces the amount of stress hormones by as much as half within a 24 hour period (30 minutes of practice, twice daily). Decreased stress hormone levels offer benefits that are too numerous to list. Hereʼs a small sample; clearer thinking, stable mood, and better judgement; improved cardiovascular system; stronger bones; more testosterone, progesterone and oxytocin production (hormones which improve our moods, sexual function and promote “bonding”) and this is a big one, diminished aging process.

So what is meditation? Again, we will remain within the confines of scientific scrutiny, avoiding religious rituals or any particular dogma. Meditation can simply be viewed as resting the brain, allowing it to function more coherently. This capacity is inherent in all human beings. A farmer, sitting on a rocking chair, overlooking his vast cornfields, a fisherman leaning on a palm tree, appreciating the setting sun and other pastoral scenes, offer our brain an opportunity to pause, perceive and praise. Each second, our brain is bombarded with over a million impulses, most of which go unnoticed by us. This busyness causes us to act autonomously. Forty percent of our daily activities are completely habituated. Meditation, while sitting, standing, lying, walking or even when performing mundane tasks such as washing dishes or eating, allows our brain to synchronize with many other parts of the brain rather than acting chaotically. With specific meditative practices such as concentration or open awareness, important skills such as attention and panoramic views can be developed. An example of a practical application would be, your emotions are unexpectedly “hijacked” by an insult from someone else. You can then react in a manner which will ultimately serve no useful purpose for anyone or, you may chose to put your attention to your breathing pattern or to your body and become keenly aware of the sensations you are feeling in a specific area. Remember your grandmother telling you to count to ten before reacting? Or with the practice of open awareness, you give yourself “space” to ponder what made the other person insult you. Is it really you who is being insulted or is the person simply projecting his or her unhappiness to you? It is critical to note that with such relatively minor incidence, your stress hormones can shoot up in a nanosecond, causing great bodily (brain included) harm. If you get mad at someone and then drop dead from a heart attack, who is the real killer? Of course you donʼt need to practice meditation to be a calm and loving person. But for many of us, with our brain programmed to function in a survival mode, we do need some amount of training to lead a healthy, peaceful and joyful life. I would encourage you to find a method of relaxing and enhancing your brain function that appeals to you and then give it a good try. Positive effects can be noticed (especially by those close to you) within a matter of few weeks, with long term benefits.

Take care of your brain. It is the only one you have.
Dr. Philip Bhark M.D., FACC

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