By Dr. Mercola
It used to be thought that your brain was hard-wired, like a computer, and incapable of changing or recovering function that was lost.
We now know that this is not true and, in fact, your brain has a great deal of “plasticity,” meaning it is a dynamic, changeable structure capable of recovering, repairing, and regaining functionality that had previously been lost.
One of the ways you can “change” your brain is actually through thought itself, and emerging research is showing that mental effort can actually result in physical changes to your mind and body.
Even Thinking About Exercise Can Increase Your Muscle Strength
As the ASAP Science video above shared:
“Imagining an action and doing it require the same motor and sensory programs in the brain.”
When translated to real-life scenarios, like playing the piano or exercising, research shows that many of the same benefits exist for imagined or physical actions. For instance, those who mentally practiced playing the piano achieved the same accuracy level as those who physically did it.
Likewise, people who simply imagined doing strength-training exercises increased their muscle strength by 22 percent, compared to 30 percent among those who physically did the exercises. Now I don’t recommend making all of your workouts “imaginary,” but the power of your thoughts to evoke changes in your brain and body is truly fascinating.
Along these lines, research recently revealed that when you focus your mind on a specific muscle during a workout, you work that muscle 22 percent harder.1 By harnessing your brain as a workout tool, you may, in fact, be able to get in better shape, faster.
In fact, just believing that your daily activities are exercise has also been shown to improve physical fitness. Harvard researchers informed one group of hotel housekeepers that their daily work qualified as exercise, whereas a control group did not receive this information. Four weeks later, those who believed their work was a form of exercise had a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index, even though their behaviors hadn’t actually changed at all.2
How to Harness Neuroplasticity for Your Health and Well-Being
The ASAP Science video is based on a book – The Brain That Changes Itself -- by psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge, MD. In it he describes how your thoughts can literally alter brain anatomy by switching your genes on and off, and how brain exercises can not only help you improve cognition and learning, but also help you develop muscle strength, recover movement lost due to a stroke, or even overcome pain, depression or anxiety. As stated in the video:
“Each thought actually changes the structure and function of your brain by affecting the neurons at the microscopic level.”
Likewise, Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity for more than 30 years, describes brain plasticity as follows:
"It's simple in concept. The brain changes physically, functionally, and chemically, as you acquire an ability or as you improve an ability. You know this instinctively. Something must be changing as your brain advances, as it progresses. Actually what it is doing is changing the local wiring, changing the details of how it's connected. It's also changing itself in other ways, physically, functionally, and those changes account for that improvement, or account for the acquisition of an ability. You don't realize it but as you acquire an ability – let's say, the ability to read – you actually create a system in the brain that does not exist, or that's not in place, in the non-reader. It [the ability] actually evolves in the brain."
Stimulating Your Brain is Key
As Dr. Merzenich explains, your brain is designed and constructed to be stimulated and challenged, and to carefully examine, resolve and interpret your environment. What research into brain plasticity shows us is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration. A key factor or ingredient necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task.
In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention.
Rote memorization of nonsensical or unimportant items will not stimulate your brain to create new neurons – but imagining the act of exercise or playing a musical instrument might. Dr. Merzenich has been instrumental in the development of a kind of "brain gym" environment — a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more. No matter what your age or current level of brain function, your brain can likely improve to some degree or other by engaging in brain exercises, but there are other ways to harness the power of your mind as well …
Improving Your Physical and Mental Self Through Proper Brain Fitness
Aside from engaging in a computer-based brain exercise program, Dr. Merzenich lists several things you can do on a daily basis, as part of your day-to-day lifestyle, to help maintain optimal brain fitness:
- Get 15-30 minutes of physical exercise each day. When exercising, think about using your brain to control your actions. That means, skip the iPod and instead take in the details of your environment.
"Reconstruct it in your mind. Basically, we are constructed to take in the details of our physical environments, and to interpret and reconstruct them. That's a critical form of exercise for us basically to refine our navigational skills and abilities in this sense – to basically look at the landmarks, to look at the details, to record them in detail," he says.
Also, be sure to pay attention to your physical body. "You should feel yourself again. When's the last time you actually thought about the feelings of your movements?"
- Spend about five minutes every day working on the refinement of a specific, small domain of your physical body. Dr. Merzenich explains:
"That is to say, move in a very variable and controlled way – variable in speed, variable to reach a target, for example, with your big toe or your little finger. Do that every day. I do that in a systematic way, because I'm trying to maintain the fidelity of the neurological control movement. I know that I'm very much thinking about the feeling in my movements as I do that."
- Find ways to engage yourself in new learning as a continuous aspect of your life, such as taking on new hobbies, learning new skills
- Stay socially engaged
- Practice "mindfulness," in which you're attentively focusing on the world around you again, as if you're seeing it for the first time.
"Look at the wonder in the flower. Look with curiosity again at the movements of the lizard. Engage in the details of the world and in life. Associate what you hear with what you feel on your skin," he suggests. "It's incredibly important that you engage the brain and all of its details of how it's drinking in information, because this again relates to the fidelity with which it will represent it for all of its operations."
Your Mind is Intricately Linked to Your Physical Activity …
Just as your thoughts may be able to alter your physical body, physical exercise also protects and beneficially alters your brain. In fact, while staying engaged mentally and socially are known to be important for brain health, research suggests physical activity may actually be even more important to keep your brain healthy and prevent brain shrinkage as you age.
Among people in their 70s, those who were the most physically active had less signs of aging in their brains than those who weren’t, while engaging in intellectually challenging or social activities appeared to have no effect, one study found.3
The bottom line is … you can very well harness the power of your thoughts to create real physical changes in your body. And on the flipside, physical activity can also lead to positive changes in your brain. A lifestyle that encourages both of these modalities is likely going to give you the most benefit now and in the years to come.