The topic of brain health is rapidly growing in popularity, interest and need. Terms such as neuroplasticity, the ability for the brain to change, has given birth to both miraculous therapies as well as marketing schemes to take advantage of the fear or desire around improving brain function.
Many are wondering as to whether activities they are doing are promoting brain health, and what is fact versus fiction. One may easily research a specific intervention, look for the evidence, and evaluate, but not everyone has the time or skill set to do just that.
What I have found to be immensely helpful is to define a cognitive model; a framework that establishes a foundation of principles that allow any lifestyle choice to be held accountable. In addition, a framework that promotes principles inherent to biological health are present; variability, novelty, and consistency.
Sign up for my weekly Brain Bullets Newsletter. It’s a combination of a newsletter, Tim Ferriss’ 5 Bullet Fridays, and Cliff Note’s-style research summaries to keep you in the loop about the latest and greatest technology, research, trends, and more!
Two Primary Types of Neuroplasticity
To begin, there are two primary types of neuroplasticity. There are changes that occur at the structural level, and changes that occur at the functional level.
The structural level has to do with neurological and vascular tissue, either the creation or degradation of it (since neuroplasticity is a two-way street), and represents the “hardware” of the brain.
The functional level is associated with cognitive processes, neurological signaling; the electricity and the neurochemistry activity that occurs within the brain. This can be seen as the “software” of the brain.
Most interventions address both the software and the hardware of the brain (sometimes biasing towards more structure or function depending on the specificity of the intervention). Understanding the differentiation between the two can help parse out why something works or doesn’t work well for whatever your cognitive goals are, or even help you find an intervention (or tweak an existing one) in order to create one’s ideal outcome.
There are two primary types of interventions (for the sake of this article) that are commonly known (and shown in research) to promote brain health. These are the Physical and the Psychological-Cognitive Domains.
The Physical domain, in my opinion, is the most interesting and undervalued of the three. The physical is often overlooked due to the separation of brain and body in science and society. However an emerging field of neuroscience, Embodied Cognition, is seeking to change that, ultimately stating that the body has innate intelligence, and that it communicates with the brain like any other organ.
Lifestyle choices that can promote brain health from a physical perspective include:
- Resistance Training
- Coordination Training
- Mindful Movement
- Physical Activities and Sports
- Coherence with Circadian Rhythm
- Healthy Fats
- Anti-inflammatory foods
- Herbs and Supplements
- Breathwork (MANY different types)
- Exposure to Nature
- Cold Exposure
- Natural Sun Exposure
The Psychological-Cognitive Domain takes a more top-down perspective on promoting brain health. The reason I am combining Cognitive and Psychological domains is that (even though they can be broken down into sub-domains, and will be in future content) is because they both are interrelated and easier to comprehend as both the mind and the brain.
When combining this understanding with Embodied Cognition, we have a sound integrative perspective on brain health.
Psychological-Cognitive Lifestyle Factors that promote brain health include:
- Healthy Social Activity
- Stress Management
- Mind-Body Interventions
- Enjoyable Activities
- Work-Life Balance
- Establishing a Purpose and a “Why”
- Establishing Meaningful Aspects of Professional & Personal Life
- Focusing Out
- Cognitive Challenges
- Novel Planning or Organizational Tasks
- Memory Tasks
- Combining Cognitive with Physical Challenges