Of all the organs in our body, the brain is perhaps the most interesting. This is because it controls everything from emotions and cravings to our sleep patterns and physical health.
Contrary to popular belief, we use 100% of our brains, with all its parts functioning throughout the day, even when we’re asleep.1 And, of late, scientists have found that certain things in our life influence certain parts of the brain. Here are a few of them.
Often, athletes and intellectuals are pitted against each other, with the belief that the two operate in separate ways. However, recent research indicates that sports and physical activity improve cognition.
Specifically, sports improve one’s cognitive functioning (information processing), memory, and concentration. In children, it also improves behavior and academic achievement. Alternatively, inactivity can negatively impact brain health and cognition. Hence, it is important to prioritize sports in both, the academic curriculum and our lifestyles.2
The classic image of a “nerd” has always been that of someone with their nose buried in their books. And, there might be some truth to the stereotype. Studies say that reading improves cognition.
Researchers at Stanford looked at the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction by making the test subjects read Jane Austin. The blood flow in the brains of subjects was tracked each time they read excerpts of the novel.
At first, they were asked to skim through the pages. Later, they were asked to pay attention to the text, as if they were studying for an exam.
It was found that attentive reading increased blood flow to the brain, hence improving cognition and focus. This might be because paying attention to literary texts demands the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions in the brain. So, the next time you pick up a book, make sure you aren’t just skimming through the text.3
3. Excessive Sugar Consumption
Loading up on desserts and sugary drinks won’t just give you cavities and diabetes. Research states that excessive sugar consumption might have a negative effect on your cognitive abilities and mood.
Additionally, sugar consumption might trigger psychological disorders such as depression.6 Both, psychological disorders and lowered cognitive functioning can set the stage for improper appetite control.7 So, be sure to cut down on the sugar.
Cynical male leads in most romantic comedies (or, “chick flicks”), have already established that falling in love involves a chemical reaction. To be precise, the act of falling in love releases oxytocin, dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine which make you feel good and cause the pitter-patter of the heart. They also lead to restlessness, preoccupation with the person, and euphoria.8
Once in love, studies indicate that people who were socially awkward before they got together with their loved one, might see an improvement in their social cognition. This could be attributed to the naturally-occurring hormone oxytocin, which makes people more empathic and understanding. However, this has a very little effect on people who are already socially proficient.9
Studies also state that love and hate both activate two parts of the brain, namely putamen and the insula. However, unlike hate, experts believe that love might impair one’s judgment. However, this needs further research.10
While we’re on the subject of social cognition, it is important to mention pregnancy. Research indicates that pregnancy shrinks the brain’s gray matter which dictates memory, emotions, muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
This shrinkage is believed to set the stage for maternal instincts and social cognition. Further studies state that these changes might last for up to 2 years.11
Stress is guilty of triggering a wide range of health conditions. And, as it turns out, stress also has a significant effect on the brain. Studies indicate that it speeds up cognitive decline that comes with aging.
This is because prolonged periods of stress lead to loss of neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.12
Additionally, stress might also trigger sleep disorders. This, in turn, causes the toxic buildup of beta-amyloid, also called the “Alzheimer’s protein,” which causes memory loss. So, if you tend to be stressed out, do try stress-relieving exercises like meditation.13 14
Channeling your inner Picasso might just improve your cognitive abilities. Research states that painting and contemplation of art slow down the course of aging and related cognitive decline.
However, in the study, painting classes were more effective than art history in slowing down aging’s effects. So, it might be a good time to buy a canvas and a set of paints.15
Keeping up with 8 glasses of water in a day doesn’t just improve your skin and gut health. Studies indicate that dehydration shrinks the brain.
This, in turn, leads to loss of memory and impaired cognitive functioning. And, even a moderate loss of fluid could trigger this reaction, so be sure to stay hydrated.16
It’s interesting to note how emotional and physiological things in our lives can trigger changes in the brain. And, these studies shed light on the future of psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
|↑1||Busting a brain myth: We really do use 100 percent of our brains. Here are a few such things. Johns Hopkins University.|
|↑2||How sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning. Department Of Sport And Recreation.|
|↑3||This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Stanford News.|
|↑4||Ye, Xingwang, Xiang Gao, Tammy Scott, and Katherine L. Tucker. “Habitual sugar intake and cognitive function among middle-aged and older Puerto Ricans without diabetes.” British journal of nutrition 106, no. 9 (2011): 1423-1432.|
|↑5||Kendig, Michael D. “Cognitive and behavioral effects of sugar consumption in rodents. A review.” Appetite 80 (2014): 41-54.|
|↑6||Knüppel, Anika, Martin J. Shipley, Clare H. Llewellyn, and Eric J. Brunner. “Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study.” Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 6287.|
|↑7||Beilharz, Jessica E., Jayanthi Maniam, and Margaret J. Morris. “Diet-induced cognitive deficits: the role of fat and sugar, potential mechanisms and nutritional interventions.” Nutrients 7, no. 8 (2015): 6719-6738.|
|↑8||Love and the Brain. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑9||Bartz, Jennifer A., Jamil Zaki, Niall Bolger, Eric Hollander, Natasha N. Ludwig, Alexander Kolevzon, and Kevin N. Ochsner. “Oxytocin selectively improves empathic accuracy.” Psychological Science 21, no. 10 (2010): 1426-1428.|
|↑10||Zeki, Semir, and John Paul Romaya. “Neural correlates of hate.” PloS one 3, no. 10 (2008): e3556.|
|↑11||Hoekzema, Elseline, Erika Barba-Müller, Cristina Pozzobon, Marisol Picado, Florencio Lucco, David García-García, Juan Carlos Soliva et al. “Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure.” Nature neuroscience 20, no. 2 (2017): 287-296.|
|↑12||Engeland, Christopher G., David M. Almeida, Elizabeth Munoz, Jacqueline A. Mogle, Jennifer E. Graham-Engeland, Joshua M. Smyth, Martin J. Sliwinski et al. “The effects of stress on cognitive aging, physiology and emotion (ESCAPE) project.” BMC psychiatry 15, no. 1 (2015): 146.|
|↑13||McEwen, Bruce S., and Robert M. Sapolsky. “Stress and cognitive function.” Current opinion in neurobiology 5, no. 2 (1995): 205-216.|
|↑14||Poor sleep linked to toxic buildup of Alzheimer’s protein, memory loss. The University Of Berkley.|
|↑15||Bolwerk, Anne, Jessica Mack-Andrick, Frieder R. Lang, Arnd Dörfler, and Christian Maihöfner. “How art changes your brain: differential effects of visual art production and cognitive art evaluation on functional brain connectivity.” PloS one 9, no. 7 (2014): e101035.|
|↑16||Kempton, Matthew J., Ulrich Ettinger, Russell Foster, Steven CR Williams, Gemma A. Calvert, Adam Hampshire, Fernando O. Zelaya et al. “Dehydration affects brain structure and function in healthy adolescents.” Human brain mapping 32, no. 1 (2011): 71-79.|