The Brain takes you on a whistle-stop tour of the inner cosmos. It’s a journey that will take you into the world of extreme sports, criminal justice, genocide and the search for immortality. This is a story of how your life shapes your brain, and how your brain shapes your life.
Get the book here: The Brain by David Eagleman
Key Idea #1 – Keeping your mind active may help ward off cognitive decline
We are living longer than at any point in human history. Whilst that presents benefits and possibilities, it also presents challenges against maintaining a healthy mind and fighting diseases like Alzheimer’s – a condition which attacks our brain tissue and in essence who we are.
A unique study conducted in the United States recruited 1,100 nuns, priests and brothers to take part to help explore the ageing brain. As a group, the selection was ideal, not only was their routines similar so accessing the participants was easier but they have fewer confounding factors too which means there was less risk of the study’s results being swayed and ending up having inaccurate data.
Since 1994 when the data collection began, the researchers expected a clear cut distinction between rapid cognitive decline and an individual has either Alzheimer’s, a stroke or Parkinson’s (the three key disorders which cause dementia). Their findings, however, went against their initial hypothesis. Whilst some people had full-blown Alzheimers, they did not suffer any cognitive impairments because of this – it was almost like they did not have the disease at all. What the researchers found was that the individuals who warded off cognitive decline were more likely to perform cognitive exercises such as crosswords; reading; driving; learning new skills and taking on responsibilities.
The research found similar findings on the flip side too. Whilst social activity, having strong networks and interactions with others helped prevent cognitive decline, individuals who exhibited loneliness, anxiety, depression and lack of activity were liked to have rapid cognitive decline.
Whilst this is one study of many into keeping a healthy mind, the findings are interesting and provide good advice: If you want to stay healthy into your old age, be conscientious, have a purpose and keep busy!
Key Idea #2 – Professionals minds do not have to work as hard
If you put a beginner and professional side-by-side to perform a task such as stacking cups, you may assume that the professional’s mind would burn more energy than the beginners in order to coordinate the actions required to complete the task. However, Eagleman, with the aid of Austin Naber – who at the time was a ten-year-old who held the children’s word record for cup stacking – help uncover how experts and beginners minds approach challenges.
After hooking themselves up to an Electroencephalogram (EEG) – a machine that records brain activity – they found that it isn’t the expert’s minds who work the hardest but the beginners instead by some margin.
The EEG showed that Eagleman (the beginner) exerted a high level of activity in the beta-wave frequency in the brain. This is the frequency that is associated with extensive problem-solving. Austin on the other hand was displaying high levels of activity in the Alpha wave band – the wave most associated with being at rest. When analysing the results, it looked like Austin’s mind was almost like it wasn’t having to try at all.
There’s a good reason for this. After years of practising, specific patterns of physical connections form into the brain and as a result, you carve the actions required right into your neurons. The overall result of this is that you not only expend less energy but you can perform at your best without even thinking.
Key Idea #3 – Practice will help you enter the flow state
As we saw above, our brain’s ability to hardwire and burn programmes into its structure is one of its most powerful tricks. It can solve complex movements by using little energy and once these skills are etched in, they can be performed on autopilot without much conscious effort at all – also known as that desired flow state.
Whilst having these skills accessible below the reach of conscious access, there are some downsides. You lose access to the sophisticated programmes your brain is running – you don’t know precisely how you do it, but you just do. Interestingly. any attempts to consciously interfere with engrained skills typically worsens performance.
When you are in flow, you are not crazed by the chatter of conscious deliberation, you are laser-focused on the task at hand without even realizing what you are doing. If you want to get into the flow state you need to first practice enough to have hardwired the skills into your mind and then step back and let your subconscious do the work.
Key Idea #4 – A simple method to help you stick to your goals
Options right in front of us can be tempting. Would you prefer £100 now or £120 in two years time? Whilst you receive more money (even after adjusting for inflation hopefully!) in the future your mind cannot help but step in and make you think of all the fun things you could do with that money now, even if delaying the gratification will leave you better off in the long run.
But can we do anything about this? These types of problems face us every day. We know we should go to the gym, however, sitting on the sofa watching your favourite series whilst binging on ice cream is just too irresistible.
Inspiration and lessons can be taken from someone who lived 3,000 years ago, however…
The legendary hero Ulysses who was on his way back from the Trojan war realised his ship would pass an island where beautiful sirens lived. These sirens sang songs that sailors found irresistible, and as a result, would end up crashing their ships onto the rocks.
Ulysses knew as soon as he heard the music he would not be able to resist. He had to make sure he was not tempted by the sirens in the first place. In response to this, he ordered his men to lash him securely to the mast of the ship and fill both his and his crew’s ears with beeswax so they could not hear anything. Ulysses made it clear to his men not to release him under any circumstance and to attack him if he broke free of his bonds.
Whilst most of us are not faced with that specific issue – it does illustrate the importance of making arrangements whilst you are of sound mind to help prevent you veering off course when temptations may get too high. This deal between the present and your future self is also known as a Ulysses contract.
When applying this to modern problems, let’s say you want to go to the gym but cannot find the motivation. Instead of going solo, invite a friend along. Then if you do not go to the gym, you have to deal with not only breaking the habit you’re trying to set but also standing up a friend.
You could approach eating healthier in a similar method too. Whilst you are of sound mind you may be able to resist the urge of eating foods you shouldn’t, however, the minute you feel slightly stressed, all goals go out the window. Instead of having to rely on your self-control, you could try getting rid of the thing you are trying to avoid completely.
Making changes for the better is not easy, however, small changes like creating a Ulysses contract with yourself may be enough to help you change.
Get the book here: The Brain by David Eagleman