How to Change Your Brain

December 16, 2012 by Ken Nowack

“I’ve got the brain of a four year old. I’ll bet he was glad to be rid of it.”

Groucho Marx


Through a process called plasticity, parts of the brain can be trained to do something they normally do not do or develop new capacities that help us to think and feel differently.  Neuroplasticity occurs in the brain:

  1. Childhood: when the immature brain orga­nizes itself.
  2. With Brain Injury: to compensate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing functions.
  3. Through our Adult­hood: whenever something new is learned and memorized.

Changing your brain can be done by changing your behavior–in fact, two habits have been shown to have a significant and positive effect on changing our brain with associated changes in empathy, anxiety reduction, and memory.

Mindfulness Meditation Changes the Brain  

Maybe just practicing mindfulness – or a special kind of awareness that is attentive and warmly engaged with each moment of life – can change our brain.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR) is a meditation program initially developed by John Kabat-Zinn and researchers at Harvard Medical School to help people living with chronic pain. Central to this form of meditation is a focus on the breath to bring the mind back to the present moment when it wanders off. Over time, this leads to greater conscious control over attentional focus, such that more primitive alarm responses are less able to control our thoughts and behaviors.

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that a briefer meditation protocol can produce similar changes in cortical activity. Researcher Christopher Moyer and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Stout assigned subjects at random to either a 5-week Mindfulness Meditation group or to a group put on a waiting list for services ((Moyer, C. A. et al. (2011). Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated With Positive Emotion Is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training. Psychological Science)).   Data showed people in the meditation group practiced at home a couple of times a week for about 25 minutes each time, on average. These meditation subjects showed the same changes in cortical activity as those who got the full intervention in earlier studies; that is, a significant increase in left hemisphere cortical activation (associated with being more approach and reward oriented and emotionally positive). The waiting list group did not demonstrate these changes and were less able to regulate negative emotions.

Exercise Changes the Brain

Maybe just working out will change your brain.

An earlier 2003 study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that people who exercise lose brain tissue more slowly. Arthur Kramer, Ph.D. studying adults between the ages of 58 to 78 found that 6 months of regular aerobic activity altered the middle frontal and superior parietal regions of the brain (responsible for concentration). Kramer used MRI tests to show that those who exercised had denser brains than those who were inactive. It seems that leaders who are physically active lose brain tissue more slowly ((Colcombe, S., Erickson, K., Raz, N., Webb, A., Cohen, N., McAuley, E. & Kramer, A. (2003). Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences. 58, 176-180)). A fairly recent study revealed that individuals who exercised for 6 months showed a significant increase in brain tissue responsible for higher level functioning like planning, goal setting and multitasking ((Columbe, S., Erickson, K., Scalf, P., Kim, J., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., Ekavsky, S., Marquez, L, & Kramer, A. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences. 61, 1166-1170)).

In this study, one group just walked three days a week for 45 minutes and the other control group did non-aerobic stretching exercises. After six months, MRI tests confirmed that the exercise group had a 2% increase in the prefrontal and temporal cortices – areas that show considerable age-related deterioration – incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise. Research by UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla suggests that rather than neurons in our brain dying off as we get older, people who exercised regularly for 3 months seemed to stimulate BDNF levels in the body causing the sprouting of new neurons ((Gomez Padilla, F. (2007).  The influences of diet and exercise on mental health through hormesis.  Aging Research Reviews)).

An analysis of 18 longitudinal fitness-training research studies reveal that cognitive functioning is significantly improved regardless of the type with cardiovascular workouts.  The findings that exercise is a key for increasing BDNF levels in the hippocampus–an area vital for memory, problem solving and learning–has provided insight about the physiological mechanisms responsible for the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning. In recent research by Gomez-Pinilla, blocking BDNF actions abolishes the ability of exercise to facilitate learning and memory as well as interfering with building synaptic connections.  It would appear that exercise is vital for both brain health and becoming smarter over time.

If you are curious about how much you are working out and just how relaxed you are (relative to over 25,000 other Type A working adults) write me at if you want to take our stress/resilience assessment called StressScan.

It seems by just applying mindful meditation technniques and increasing our level of physical exercise is really a no brainer….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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