10 ways to (re)train your brain
Friday, August 03, 2012

Discoveries by neuroscientists in the past two decades suggest we can play a more active role in developing our brain’s performance than originally thought. These tips, straight from the experts, show you how to wake up — and shake up — your brain…

“How can 
the human mind — consciousness, the self, free will, emotion, and all the rest — completely depend on a bulbous and ugly assemblage of squishy wet parts? What has the spiking of neurons got to do with me?” writes author and philosopher Colin McGinn in his New York Times review of VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.

Brain scientists have long understood that the ‘spiking of neurons’ has a lot to do with who we are (and how we think, feel and act). But new information — thanks to developments in brain imaging technologies — on neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to new stimuli), neurogenesis (the brain’s ability to rejuvenate itself) and brain reorganisation (its capacity, after injury, to delegate some functions to undamaged areas) is teaching us more all the time. For example...

  • Though some of the most intense learning (and brain changes) occur in the womb and during infancy, the brain continues to alter and change throughout adulthood. “Neurons are busy reorganising themselves for optimal performance all the time,” says Marlene Wells, a Durban-based clinical psychologist with a special interest in neuropsychology and cognitive rehabilitation.
  • Repeated activity (whether thought, feeling or action) strengthens neural circuits associated with that activity. “The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or tamping them down,” explains Teresa Aubele, US-based neuroscientist and co-author of Train Your Brain to Get Happy.
  • Through repeated activity of a skill, we enable ‘neural pruning’: “This is what happens when we learn a skill so well that the neural pathways are refined to use fewer neurons more efficiently,” explains Wells.
  • It’s thought that the brain can hold between four and 10 thoughts at a time, says Aubele. “You could say we have ‘limited resources’ of attention and retention from moment to moment.” This is not to say we can’t become experts in many areas in our lifetime. “Look at Renaissance men like Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo!” says Aubele — although this does require that we use our brain resources efficiently. We’d need a high level of focus on the various areas and, of course, the time to do so.
  • Rarely used networks tend to be redirected to strengthen frequently used networks. “If you stop using a skill, your brain efficiently uses that cortical space for something you are doing,” explains Wells.
  • Even the adult brain can grow new neurons and make new connections [the latter tends to occur more frequently]. “More neurons or more neural connections means the ability to not only do brand-new things (like ride a bike, or learn a language), but also the ability to do old things faster, or more competently, or in the best possible way,” says Aubele.
  • Brain changes can be both adaptive and maladaptive. “Plasticity is competitive,” says Wells. “Bad skills or habits will take over if they are constantly practised at the expense of good skills or habits.”



The first step to improving your brain’s functioning lies in becoming aware of how you are spending your time — and thus your brainpower. Are you using your grey matter in ways that count? Are you exercising it to get the results you require and/or desire? Conversely, what thoughts or activities are repeated, or dominant, in your life? And are these the kinds of thoughts and activities you want to be influencing your brain structure — and ultimately your experience of the world? Says Wells: “With this in mind, we can make conscious decisions about the information, skills and techniques we choose to train our brain in.”


Your brain would love to be ‘lazy’ (or what it sees as efficient: following its tried-and-tested pathways), so it’s up to you to, um, keep it on its toes. “The more you challenge your brain, the more refined its general functioning will be,” says Wells. “Refuse to be satisfied with an under-stimulating, predictable environment,” she advises. Find ways to introduce challenge into everyday tasks and “challenge familiar ways of doing things, thinking and interacting with your world”. (Keeping that advice in mind, this article was drafted with pencil and paper.)


“You are limited only by what you give your brain to work with!” says Aubele. “The more you ask it to do, the more cortical space it sets up to handle new tasks…” Some recommendations from our experts include trying a new physical skill or sport, picking up a new language or musical instrument, taking an art course, working hard to keep abreast of changes in communication technology, investing in ongoing education, joining interest groups or reading extensively to increase your knowledge.


Decline in memory, concentration and attention span are often the first noticeable signs of a decline in the sharpness of our brains, whether due to ageing, stress or certain mental health conditions (like anxiety). “Anything that requires intense focus will help stimulate those parts of the brain that tend to be neglected as we age,” says Lynn Fearnhead, chairperson of the Neuro Rehab Physiotherapy Group of the South African Society of Physiotherapy. The usual recommendations — doing crosswords, Sudoku, complex puzzles and brain-training games; practising memory strategies; doing calculations in your head rather than reaching for the calculator — are good for the brain, but general activities that involve high levels of focus can be just as valuable. She suggests studying a course that will be examined, taking a dance or aerobics class with intricate steps, or playing games like bridge or chess. Any new skill will also require you to focus, as long as you apply yourself wholeheartedly.


Opt for activities that stimulate different areas of the brain at the same time. For example, spend your time and money on doing (rather than buying) things, advises Aubele. “The value of an object generally fades over time — whereas the value of an activity, which tends to be composed of many things, like time spent with family and friends, exercise, giving the brain new experiences and good memories, leads to a lot of different types of stimulation for your brain at once — and creates anticipation, which is also good for your brain,” she says.


Although mild stress can be a motivator, chronic stress (“any stress that is persistent or an event that you keep revisiting”) leads to increased (or decreased) tonic firing in certain areas of your brain, creating an imbalance in the brain’s electrical and chemical synergy, explains Dr Fleur Howells, a research fellow at UCT’s Department of Psychiatry. So yes, the brain can adapt (in the sense 
that it continues to function), but there comes a point (different in each of us) where this shift becomes counter-beneficial.

We tend to be alerted to this imbalance through “physical exhaustion (body warning), developing a cold or flu (immune system warning) or experiencing mood fluctuations (brain warning),” she adds.

According to Dr Annerine Roos, an expert in brain imaging from the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University, chronic stress may also ‘kill’ brain cells. “Brain studies [using MRI and DTI scans] of stress and anxiety disorders suggest that brain volumes may 
be reduced and white matter [the fatty substance that covers the long ends — axons — of brain cells] damaged, affecting the effectiveness of communication between cells and their functioning … Later in life (and in more extreme cases) this damage may show up as cognitive problems, such as loss 
of short-term memory 
(in dementia) or memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”


Aubele believes one of the most overlooked factors in a healthy brain is social interaction. She points to a recent Swedish study, which concludes that being sociable is associated with an up to 60 per cent decrease in the likelihood of dementia, “probably because it promotes inflammation-fighting chemicals in the brain and helps prevent a build-up of stress hormones”.

Social structure is also more complex than we realise, she explains, and calls on a number of skills, such as ascertaining levels of intimacy between friends, family and acquaintances, understanding nuances of speech, and circumstantial decision-making.


According to studies by US neuroscientist Dr Fred Gage, a pioneer in the field of neurogenesis, exercise is one of the most effective ways to ‘grow’ new brain cells. Although the field is relatively new, research suggests that exercise “increases the volume of grey matter (the part of your brain involved in cognitive thoughts — i.e. ‘thinking’) and combats inflammation,” says Aubele.

Wells adds that regular, challenging, cardiovascular exercise, like walking and cycling, also strengthens the arteries that supply the brain with oxygen.


According to nutritional therapist Sally-Ann Creed, new studies suggest 
that Vitamin D3 — which can reduce the effect of ‘neurotoxic insults’ (when we eat, drink or smell something that is toxic 
to the brain) and increase glutathione (which aids detoxification and protects against free radical stress) — could have a major impact in preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. “Although we do get D3 from sunlight (when large areas of the body are exposed) and in fish to a lesser extent, it seems that just about everyone is short of D3,” 
says Creed, who recommends taking supplements of a minimum of 5000iu 
a day.


Getting enough good quality sleep is essential to improving your mental functioning, says Dr Alison Bentley of the WITS Dial-a-Bed Sleep Research Laboratory. “Inadequate sleep leads to reduced functioning of the prefrontal cortex (the area underneath the forehead and unique to humans). As a result, the brain focuses on the essentials only.

Long before you feel sleepy, your high-end 
brain functions — such as innovative and lateral thinking, keeping track of the order of sequences 
and communication skills — have been affected 
negatively.” And although we may think we can skimp on sleep or ‘adapt’ to less of it, doing so can mean we miss out on the crucial stages of the sleep cycle in which certain neurons regenerate and new 
information or skills learnt are ‘stored’.

— Gallo Images




Brainy resources

1.   Visit www.newscientist.com/topic/brain for an introductory tour of the brain.

2.   See a CBT therapist if you’d like guidance in changing what therapists call ‘thinking errors’ and in developing more constructive emotional responses.

3.   For brain games and exercises, see The Rough Guide Book of Brain Training by psychologist Tom Stafford and puzzle maestro

Dr Gareth Moore (Rough Guides, 2010);

Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain by

Ryuta Kawashima (Penguin, 2007); and


4.   For insight into the Internet’s effect on our

brains, see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.


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