Brain-friendly tactics put to the test.
Our brains are amazing instruments—endlessly fascinating and full of potential. I was lucky enough to get a peek inside my brain with the help of the experts at the Amen Clinic in Los Angeles. Over three-days of intensive testing using brain SPECT imaging and a battery of cognitive, emotional and physical tests, I explored how my brain was functioning and what I could do to improve it.
I shared the details of my brain evaluation, what it looks like and what the experts said in Part One of this article. This article outlines what I learned and how you can benefit from my experiences and insights.
Learning from my brain
Aside from being among the best results the doctor had seen, seeing my healthy brain scans showed me that the things I have been doing to optimise my brain are working. Putting positive psychology, emotional intelligence and neuroscience insights into practice every day works! The experience has bolstered my belief in myself—despite setbacks I feel confident in my ability to make good and intuitive decisions. My capacity to bounce back from adversity appears to be quick.
It hasn’t always been this way. Fifteen years ago I was far less resilient and far more likely to see the world through a negative or less empowered lens. I now see stress more as an opportunity to be challenged and grow than something that causes me distress.
I do believe my brain has been changed by the positive habits I have chosen to practice every day. These actions have become part of who I am. I share some of the ways I have and will continue to nurture a healthy brain below.
There are areas I can develop too. For example, the scans confirmed that I tend to make impulsive decisions when overwhelmed and experiencing highly negative emotions or when I am very excited. Emotional intelligence has helped me to become more aware of what I am feeling before acting, though action and zest are some of my go-to strengths! It helps when I allow myself time out to think and reflect, then trust my intuition.
Habits—good and bad—are formed in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that helps the pre-frontal cortex make decisions. Having my brain scanned got me thinking about this area of my brain. It is inspiring me to pay more attention to every day routines, including the ones we all develop without really thinking about them.
Do you find yourself waking up every morning these days and checking your iPhone even before you get out of bed? When my alarm clock broke I replaced it with my phone temporarily and have now gained the habit of checking social media in the morning before getting out of bed. This is something easily changed, just by buying an alarm clock and leaving the phone downstairs. Habits can be challenged and replaced with something more intentional and healthy! Every so often, I try something different like brushing my teeth with a different hand to spark my brain to start creating new neural connections.
I embedded the habit of smiling deliberately. Every day I woke up and smiled broadly in the mirror to put myself in a positive and outgoing mood. My mindset, relationships and self-image have definitely improved since then and I believe my brain is more primed to learn and adopt positive habits. I also made a conscious discipline of learning the names of every person I meet in each training or talk I deliver. I have learned to recall up to 70 names within a short period. This habit alone has significantly increased my memory abilities, not to mention the quality of my relationships.
Every night I also write down the three best things that have happened to me in the day, or three things I am grateful for. I am sure this has rewired my brain to look for the positives in my day.
My next step is to start observing and challenging my habits afresh. Do I really want them? Will they help my brain be at it’s best? If not, how can I change them? What new habits do I want to create?
Boosting your brain's baseline
We know from positive psychology research by Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues who analysed twin studies, that about 50% of the differences between people’s happiness levels can be explained by genetically determined set points. A further 10% is linked to your circumstances. The remaining 40% is influenced by intentional activities. Some of these can improve your circumstances. This means we can influence our own happiness levels through our choices and habits.
The same might apply for many of the activities you can practice to boost your brain’s health. Our brains and bodies form an integrated system and caring for both aspects increases our performance and wellbeing.
You can choose to improve your brain through diet, nutrition or more sleep. You can learn meditation or mindfulness practices to increase your capacity for focussed attention. You can also train your brain with online tools (some great ones from Active Memory and Brain HQ.
For me I know that exercising more is one area I can really improve and this was one of the recommendations I discussed with the doctor at Amen Clinic. It’s a thing I enjoy and while hard to fit in, I know it will make the most difference to my long-term health and resilience. It also gives me more moments to allow my thoughts to flow freely and new intuitions and insights to occur – particularly swimming which I find meditative.
The important thing is to choose activities that feel good for you. Treat yourself as an experiment. What suite you may be different from what suits me or other people. Find out what works for you.
The right brain fuel
One of the key factors in healthy brain function, performance and effective ;decision-making is receiving the right fuel. As you will know from many of the articles and eBooks I write and from the research, positive emotions boost the neurochemical dopamine, providing the brain with essential fuel.
Your brain needs this fuel on a daily basis to function at its best. When we feel threatened, vulnerable, uncertain or exhausted from a day of complex decisions, our thinking processes are reduced. When we feel upbeat after receiving great feedback or bonding with our loved ones or team, our brain releases neurotransmitters that allow our brain to function better, helping us to make good decisions, think creatively or try new behaviours.
Positive emotions can help us get in the right state of mind to create healthy habits.
This lesson was brought home to me with some exciting new research I learned about just two days after receiving my results. At the World Congress on Positive Psychology Barbara Fredrickson, a leader in positive psychology who founded the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, shared findings of a yet-to-be published study on wellness enhancing behaviour.
When we practice a wellness behaviour and feel good doing it, we associate that action with positive emotions and tend to start thinking about and anticipating doing it again. We end up generating a feedback loop that broadens and builds our resources and resilience over time.
I’m already making room on my to-do list for more of what I love! I have created a Ta-Da List to work alongside my To Do List with all the things I love and add to my wellbeing. I aim to tick off three every day!
In Part One of this article I explained how I put fifteen years of brain-friendly tactics to the test over three days of intensive testing to see how my brain was functioning, and what, if anything I could do to improve it! In my next article you will learn more about my top brain-friendly practices. In the mean time think about what practices you might like to add to your list of positive and inspiring activities.