Food for Thought

No. 65
Posted on 6/4/2018 by Mark Hutchinson

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
- Pablo Picasso

"To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him."
- Buddha

Some food for thought.

I was teaching a kids and teens aikido class last week and was reviewing the concept with them that mind leads body. As part of that discussion I often draw a (poor) rendition of a person’s profile and then ask the class “what is that?” On this occasion I was met with blank stares and had to sheepishly explain that the squiggles on the left side were lips and the awkward protrusion above them was supposed to be a nose. Then a hand went up and the student correctly reported that this was, in fact, a person’s head. “Yes” I said, somewhat relieved that were we able to progress. The I pointed my whiteboard marker at the middle of the profile and said “what is inside?”. Another hand shot up… “an ear.” True, I was pointing at the ear but we eventually came to the communal decision that inside the head was a brain. I didn’t try to render the drawing of the brain inside the head because it doesn’t usually go well.

“What’s inside the brain?” Often I’ll get the response I’m looking for from the kids which is “the mind.” While I was heading toward a particular conclusion, my next question stumped the class and gave me pause. “What is the mind?” Although adults usually have some amount of opinion on this topic, the kids were quite perplexed. My punch line to the kids was going to be “your mind is the boss of you.” That usually gets a laugh, but this time they were stuck on the question.

I started down the path of using the analogy of a computer representing the brain and the software representing the mind only to be met by more blank stares. I chuckled to myself. I guess I know I’m getting old when my “cutting edge” analogies are completely lost on the youth. I adjusted my metaphor: “think of your brain being like your iphone and your mind being like an app you installed.” Bing. A whole line of lightbulbs went off. Hands went flying into the air. “So my phone case is like a bike helmet.” Yes, I suppose it is.

Your brain is the hardware (although it is a bit soft) and your mind is like the software. It is a pretty flawed analogy but it does help get some traction on important aspects of how we function as people.

We now know that our brains continue to grow, adding neurons and dendritic connections, throughout our lives until the day we die. We also have learned much about how to fuel this brain growth. Using your mind to make good decisions about how to keep your hardware in good working order is a critical part of what we need to do to live well. If our hardware is compromised, even very good software runs slow and can have problems.

In this software-hardware analogy we need our mind to lead the way so that both brain (body) and mind can continue to be healthy and grow. This is obviously true for children, but is actually no less true for adults. Your brain doesn’t stop growing, why should your mind stop.

The connection between mind and brain is very tight and many activities are now shown to directly, measurably, benefit both mind and brain – reinforcing both. Scientists are happy to report to us:

Intermittent fasting increases synaptic plasticity and increases neuron growth.

The physical positioning of your body in space challenges the brain and causes increased dendritic connections. The effects are caused by going to new places such as traveling or positioning your body in new ways – like dance. Even taking alternate routes to familiar locations causes the same effect.

Creating artwork, reading fiction, and learning new words all stimulate increased connectivity between neurons and are linked to improved mental efficiency.

Non-dominant hand exercises are shown to build new neural pathways and have also been associated with improved impulse control and emotional health.

Improvisational physical movements like sports or dancing that require dynamic adjustment in leading or following type roles have been shown to reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia nearly twice as much as activities such as reading.

In fact, most types of exercise have been shown to stimulate new synapse production. Mental exercises like meditation have a similar impact as well.

Let’s not forget good inputs to the body. Good, healthy food is important for overall health and for brain health. A variety of foods like cocoa, blueberries and green tea have been studied for their special positive effects on brain growth.

Finally, the resting of the brain and mind during sleep has been shown to be critical to brain (and mind) health. Sleep allows for the retention and growth of the dendritic spines which connect neurons to each other. Poor sleep or sleep deprivation, even on a limited scale, can have pervasive negative impacts on your brain’s hardware!

So remember that mind leads body and that your mind has the responsibility to keep your body (and brain) in good working order.

Do something good for your mind and your brain this week!

~ Mark
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