A New Movement for A New Year
America and the world are slowly rising toward healthier, happier, more productive living. More and more people feel the need to take care of their health, doing their part to prolong their bodies and minds for as long as possible. From classes on happiness and meditation, to Fitbits teaching us how to breathe while tracking our activity, health consciousness abounds. People are paying more attention to their physical, emotional, and mental health.
This movement has backing in science, particularly in neuroscience. Neuroscientists are constantly discovering more connections between how we treat our body and mind, and how that in turn affects us for the future.
Recently, Dr. Sandrine Thuret gave a TED Talk about the process of adult neurogenesis, which is the generation of new neurons in the brain that occurs after the early stages of development in infants. Adult neurogenesis affects our emotional health, as well as our ability to learn and retain information.
Imagine you relate the following scenario to your students. You ask them to follow you along to an imaginative future life that you will paint for them:
Look at yourself 15 year in the future. See yourself now, standing right in front of you. You are 31 years old. Four years ago you got married, congrats! It was hard for your wife to move away from her parents and brothers in Colorado to join you in Virginia. However, it was the best decision, so you can start off with financial stability, as you continue with your career. You have been working for the past seven years in the marketing department of Lewil Jewelers. It is constant pressure as they continue steadily moving you up the ladder, while you take on greater responsibilities.
Two years after marriage you had your twins, Lucy and Jenny, double congrats! Twins are the best, yet sometimes you wonder… Two hands were meant for one baby or two? Your wife had to quit her job to take care of the little ones, while trying to start an at home business to make up for the income cut. In addition, you have had to hire a part-time nanny to help around the house and with the twins. There is considerable more pressure on you as the sole breadwinner for now.
Now, you are four years into marriage, three years into your latest promotion, two years into twins, and six months into dealing with the grief left behind when your wife lost her best friend unexpectedly. This is real life, the major leagues–moments of celebration, grief, accomplishment, pressure, and more. This scenario play out in many ways…
Next, you give your students two options.
You have been grabbing fast food for dinner ever since your twins were born. Nobody has the strength or patience for healthy home-cooked meals anymore. On top of that, you stopped walking to work ever since your last promotion, because you just don’t have the time and would rather use the extra 20 minutes of shuteye. You are overweight, overworked, overwrought, and your wife has noticed a flair in your anger over the past year–mood swings galore. To make matters worse, you feel like you never have any time for yourself. You wanted to take that course in photography at the local community college, but yet again it didn’t work out.
It seems like the only happiness you feel is when your twins show you the latest “drawings” they have squiggled onto paper. The only sense of accomplishment you feel is when your manager sends you an accolade email once in a while. Unfortunately, it seems that all of your stress has been directed at your spouse lately, and you don’t know how to fix the rift that is slowly spreading between the two of you.
You end off your early morning with your favorite ritual, taking the 20 minute walk to work. It is time for you to clear your mind, where you score some of your greatest ideas that have already earned you a considerable spot in the company. You also mentally review the new Coursera course in psychology that you have finally been able to fit into your schedule. You always wanted to learn about psychology, and you pursue this knowledge simply for the pleasure.
Eating healthy has been something you have worked very hard to preserve, after the twins took over life as you know it–for the best, of course. You make sure to eat a healthy home-cooked dinner at least 5 times a week, even if you let yourself “splurge” every once in a while. You help your wife get the twins to bed at a reasonable time, so you have some time to spend talking to her for 20 minutes before going to sleep. Life has its difficult moments, but you have learned how to prioritize the important things. Plus, your generally jovial mood helps the household to (mostly) maintain sanity amongst the chaos.
Now it is time for you to ask your students what they think the underlying factors are here that contribute to how the same situation can turn out so differently. Meanwhile, you assure them that these are just two examples of many ways this could potentially turn out. After listening to their strategies, offer them the science.
Here is where we introduce our students to adult neurogenesis. Why should they care? Well, the scenario above is meant to acquaint them with the core concepts of neurogenesis. Maintaining their health now, can help them lead a successful, happy, accomplished life in the future.
Does it guarantee anything? No.
Can it help? Yes.
Dr. Thuret studies neurogenesis specifically in the region known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for our learning and long-term memory, and it also plays a role in regulating our mood and emotions.
Wouldn’t students love to hear how they are capable of growing new brain cells? Not only that, but neurogenesis also affects neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change by forming new neural connections. We can change our brain and generate new cells.
Furthermore, learning itself helps solidify neurogenesis, helping the cells to stay alive after they have been newly generated. Students will start to understand how engaging in their learning directly and physically affects their brain and their ability to retain information for the future. Harnessing the power of neurogenesis while young shows a positive effect on future learning, memory capabilities, mood, and emotional control.
This will help not only to instill a growth mindset, but it may also, quite possibly, lead them to real results of improvement in school. Teaching our students to keep their brains and bodies active will affect their lives. It could potentially open the door to internal motivation in learning. It could help them to reach their academic goals and accomplish life ambitions.
700 New Neurons Per Day
How is it that a center–the hippocampus–that is primarily responsible for our long-term memory and learning is also responsible for our emotions? Well, studies show that taking anti-depressants increases neurogenesis. If one were to block neurogenesis, the antidepressants would not be effective. This shows just how significant a role neurogenesis plays in our mood and emotions.
In similar studies, cancer patients had an increase in depression, due to the fact that neurogenesis was stopped through chemotherapy. Just as the sick cells had been killed, so had the new cells been stopped. Studies seem to suggest that neurogenesis is the determining factor in our ability to be emotionally healthy.
In terms of our neurons, moods and emotions are controlled in the same part of our brain as learning and memory. This is an important connection to recognize, when it comes to learning how to learn in an optimal state.
According to Dr. Thruet’s talk, we generate 700 new neurons per day in the hippocampus. By the age of 50, we will have completely new adult-generated neurons throughout our hippocampus:
“While this may not appear to be much when compared to the several billions of neurons within the human brain, by the time you clock age fifty, you would have exchanged all the neurons you were born with within the brain with adult generated neurons.”
If we want to improve our long-term memory, learning capabilities, mood, and emotions, we should act in a way that encourages our natural process of neurogenesis.
There are factors that are known to increase neurogenesis, and there are those factors known to decrease neurogenesis.
Neurogenesis increases when we:
- run/are active
- eat properly
Similarly, neurogenesis decreases when we:
- suffer from sleep deprivation
- are stressed
- get older (although this only decreases neurogenesis, it continues to happen)
- eat poorly
As far as a “neurogenesis rich” diet is concerned, calorie restriction of approximately 20%-30% and intermittent fasting (adequate spacing between meals) encourages neurogenesis. Flavinoids, found in blueberries and dark chocolate, encourages neurogenesis. Similarly, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, found in fish such as salmon, promote neurogenesis. A diet high in saturated fats, food that is soft to chew, and alcohol are all shown to hinder neurogenesis. Although, red wine does not fit into the alcohol category here, because it has resveratrol that helps new neurons to survive.
The Key to Making the Right Decisions
By studying this carefully and referring to the specific examples provided by Dr. Thuret, we can learn how to harness the power of neurogenesis. We can increase our emotional and mental health, as well as our learning abilities.
Encouraging our students to eat healthy, sleep well, exercise, and take advantage of all opportunities to learn will help them to increase neurogenesis. This makes it easier to remember details, be in a good mood, and ultimately learn better.
Knowing the science behind all of the good advice that has been handed over to our youth might ultimately change the way they feel about diet, exercise, sleep, and learning. By giving them the scientific information behind our advice, they can choose for themselves how to treat their bodies and minds. They can choose for themselves how to treat their future.