Ever since reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, I’ve been fascinated by the science of neuroplasticity and the truth that our thoughts and choices actually change the physical structure of our brain. I’ve been applying this science to my own life in developing skills I once thought inaccessible to me, in addition to working to overcome unhealthy mental habits.
This is the third post in my series on essential oils and brain fitness. To see other posts in the series, click here.
As I continue this series of articles on essential oils and brain fitness, it may be helpful to ask, why is brain fitness even important? Why devote time out of your busy life to developing a healthy brain?
One very good reason to start developing a healthy brain is that scientists have found that if your brain is unhealthy, there is a greater chance that the rest of our body will also deteriorate.
Listen to these words from neuroscientist and brain-researcher, Dr. Caroline Leaf, who wrote in her book Switch On Your Brain about the wide-ranging consequences of how we use our brains:
“You think all day long, and at night as you sleep, you sort out your thinking. As you think, you choose, and as you choose, you cause genetic expression to happen in your brain. This means you make proteins, and these proteins form your thoughts. Thoughts are real, physical things that occupy mental real estate. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist for his work on memory, shows how our thoughts, even our imaginations, get ‘under the skin’ of our DNA and can turn certain genes on and certain genes off, changing the structure of the neurons in the brain…. Our brain is changing moment by moment as we are thinking. By our thinking and choosing, we are redesigning the landscape of our brain.”
We’ve probably all seen people who have an ability to learn information quickly, perhaps when studying for a test, but then they forget it afterwards, and then we know other people who are able to achieve content mastery. What’s the difference? The difference is that in order for content mastery to occur, let alone understanding and wisdom, the brain has to move beyond massed practice and even memorizing; rather, the brain needs to start schematizing. This is because schemas serve as hooks on which to fasten new information. Without our brain’s ability to create schemas, without a sense of the connectedness of things, everything we learn would be simply a random collection of disconnected facts and there would never be any true understanding.
Nicholas Carr puts it like this in his book The Shallows: “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”“…brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or ‘schemas.’ By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richenss to our thinking. ‘Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,’ says Sweller. ‘We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.’”
Carr points out that although the mental skill of schema formation is needed today more than ever, it is in jeopardy from technologies that orient us towards a state of continuous partial attention. As concentrated attention spans and focus become replaced by broad attention ranges and multitasking, what is lost is the type of slow, methodical, systematic and linear cognition that favors the formation of schemas in the long-term memory. In order for the brain to build up schemas effectively, a person has to reflect deeply about her life and what she has learned, and this reflection needs to occur in a slow and undistracted manner. When this is not the case, or when we form schemas badly, then the brain easily falls prey to oversimplifications. We see this all the time in our public political discourse, where issues are deliberated upon in isolated compartments that are often dominated by ideology, resulting in gross oversimplifications.
Also, the brain has to be nimble and flexible enough to adjust our schemas in light of new information we receive through knowledge, experience and personal growth. Sometimes we learn or experience things that do not fit within our existing neurological schemas, and so the brain has to alter existing schemas or create new neuro pathways, a process known as accommodation. That’s where intellectual humility, mental flexibility and open-mindedness become really important. But when our thinking is dominated by impressions, by emotional reasoning or ideology, then we become closed-minded and stuck in schemas that can actually detach us from reality.
The solution is to constantly engage in deep intellectual reflection, to eschew what Socrates called “the unexamined life.” Deep intellectual reflection is to a healthy brain like water is to a healthy plant. People knew that since before Socrates, but now we have the brain science to go with it.
Last week I had the privilege of traveling out to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology which was hosting this year’s conference for The Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion. I was asked by the OCAMPR board to present a workshop on the topic ‘Gratitude During Times of Suffering.’ My talk, which was recorded on Ancient Faith Radio, is available by clicking on the video below. It is also available for mp3 download here.
Most of the time we do grow more skilled at the things we practice, whether it’s learning to play the violin or speak French. But studies show that multitasking falls into the weird category of behaviors that go against this norm: the more you practice it the worse you become. In 2009, researchers at Stanford found that those who multitask frequently and believed that it boosted their performance were actually worse at multitasking than those who preferred not to multitask. This is sobering: if you multitask a lot and think you’re good at it, there is a statistical likelihood is that you are actually a very bad multitasker. The more you practice it, the worse you become.
This research seems counter-intuitive and weird. How could practicing an activity make a person worse at that activity? From a neurological perspective, however, this is not surprising. Study after study has found that in order for the higher functions of the brain to flourish the brain needs to be given frequent and regular spaces of silence, as well as spaces of deep undistracted attentiveness to a single activity. What both silence and attentiveness share in common is that they depend on the brain being able to weed out incoming stimuli. In other words, for the brain to work properly, it needs times when it is not multi-tasking. Times of quiet, as well as times of undistracted focused activity, act as incubation periods in which the brain consolidates what it has learned like a computer defragmenting to weed out the junk. Of course, undistracted focus is not possible in an environment of multitasking.
The following is an expert from my TSM article ‘Recovering Quiet in an Age of Noise‘.
I recently published an article for the Taylor Study Method titled ‘Recovering Quiet in an Age of Noise.’ This article continues to explore my ongoing interest in digital distractions and email addiction, but this time I’m approaching the topic from a personal angle and sharing my own journey. I share what I discovered when I went from having internet only on my computer to having it strapped to my side at all times. To read my article just click on the following link:
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Dr. Graham Taylor of the Taylor Study Method. The topic of our interview was brain fitness but our conversation ended being all over the map. We talked about educational reform, having focus amidst distractions, the importance of thinking outside the box, Common Core, emotional intelligence, ancient and modern memory techniques, the psychological insight of Homer, and much much more. Here are some observations I made during the interview.
Steven Johnson’s 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, offered an enormous boon to everyone who wanted to defend the neurological virtues of our increasingly technologized and media-driven culture. I remember hearing Doug Wilson speak at our former church, where he cited Johnson’s book–which was then required reading at New Saint Andrew’s College–as balancing out the work of Neil Postman.
In Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Carr responded to Johnson’s claim that book reading under stimulates the senses compared to using a computer. Here is Carr’s rebuttal:
Steven Johnson, in his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You, contrasted the widespread, teeming neural activity seen in the brains of computer users with the much more muted activity evident in the brains of book readers. The comparison led him to suggest that computer use provides more intense mental stimulation than does book reading. The neural evidence could even, he wrote, lead a person to conclude that ‘reading books chronically understimulates the senses.’ But while Johnson’s diagnosis is correct, his interpretation of the differing patterns of brain activity is misleading. It is the very fact that book reading ‘understimulates the senses’ that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.
- Burdening the Short-term Memory with Distractions
- Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 1)
- Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 2)
- Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 3)
- Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)
- Everything Bad is NOT Good For You
- Why Email is Addictive
- Our Disembodied Selves
- Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together
God has given you a gift called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables us to observe our own thinking. Animals can’t do that. Animals can think, but they can’t think about thinking; they can’t observe what is happening in their brains. Only humans can do that thanks to the prefrontal cortex.
You could think about the prefrontal cortex as a guard in the brain’s guard house, tasked with controlling what enters. As thoughts arise in the brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. One of the benefits of being able to do this is to weed out thinking errors. Continue reading
I began this series in 2013 after reading Steve Wasserman’s comments in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of newspapers across the country, the erosion of book reading following the rise of the internet, and the shocking lack of coverage this crisis is receiving in the national media. I quoted Wasserman’s observation that “the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”