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(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A

How to grow your brain Add to ...

The brains of highly successful people function differently from those of the average Joe, according to the authors of the new book, The Winner's Brain.

Fortunately, they say, you can actually rewire your brain, even physically change it.

Assistant neuroscience professor Mark Fenske of the University of Guelph and cognitive behavioural psychologist Jeff Brown of Harvard Medical School sought input from other brain experts and a variety of individuals they deemed "winners" - from blues guitarist B.B. King to Aaron Fechter, the inventor of popular carnival game Whac-a-Mole.

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They identified eight "win factors," including self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care.

Here, Dr. Fenske explains that, with practice, it's possible to boost these win factors and train your brain for success.

What are some of the physiological differences you see in a winner's brain?

Well, they're specific to the different areas that we find as being related to success. [For instance, London's elite Black Cab taxi drivers]have to spend a couple of years gaining "The Knowledge," which is essentially very detailed knowledge of the streets of London, the contingencies - if it's 4:30, this road will be open, this one will be closed; if there's construction at this point, what's the best way around - all these things, so that they can pass this test to get a license.

The hippocampus, which is critical for spatial navigation and memory, is larger in these individuals than it is in people who don't have this training and expertise in spatial navigation and remembering routes and things like this.

[A growing body of research shows that]what you do with your brain, how you engage your brain, can not only improve your ability to function at a given task, but can really change the physical landscape of the brain itself.

How does training your brain change it physically?

The idea is when you do a given task, you engage the parts of the brain that are involved in that task. The more you engage it, the more it seeks ways to be more efficient at what it's doing, and so that encourages new synaptic connections between neurons.

Once you have new synapses being formed, that helps to recruit support cells. So you can have the neurons making the connections and doing the firing, but they need the blood, they need oxygen, they need fuel, and so these support cells come in and help out. The result is, in those areas that are receiving a lot of activity, they're getting better blood supply … and it leads to a physical rewiring or change in the brain.

You can measure this in the thickness of the cortex, that outer wrinkled covering of the brain where most of the computational power is; that will get thicker. The cortex also gets more dense.

Is there a limit to how much you can improve your brain?

Well, there's certainly a limit to how much you can physically change your brain.... Your skull doesn't get any bigger, so it's not like you can grow a whole new lobe, but there's much more promise than what we had previously thought.

You recommend meditation as a technique for improving skills like memory and focus. What happens to your brain when you meditate?

From a scientist's perspective, when you look at meditation, it essentially involves a bunch of practice where you're shifting and controlling the focus of your attention. So in some forms of meditation, it's about having a very broad focus of attention, or else really focusing on one thing, like focusing on your breath …

What Sara [Lazar, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist]found is that the key areas that are activated when people are meditating, areas like the insula, which is really important for self-awareness, and the cortex, got thicker versus people who didn't meditate.

People who didn't meditate showed the standard age-related thinning of the cortex.

You mention in the book there's little evidence that brain teasers and memory games reverse brain aging. Are they a waste of money?

It's not clear that you're wasting your money. They certainly don't hurt, and there is probably at least some small benefit from those things.

We talked to Art Kramer [professor of psychology at the University of Illinois] What he's seen so far is that those things are fine, and you tend to get better at least in [the games] but that physical exercise, overall, seems to have quite a broad improvement on brain function.

Exercise certainly seems to be one of those things that's relatively easy to do that has really quite robust effects. Exercise releases what's called neurotrophic factors, which you can kind of think of as fertilizer for the brain. They help to facilitate the sprouting of new synapses, new connections.

What lessons about a winner's brain can we learn from the creator of Whac-a-Mole?

When we talk about the focus of attention, there's some great [research]that has shown that sometimes we try too hard. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to really focus and really try to do our very best, but instead, just relax a bit and let the information come to us.

Whac-a-Mole inventor Aaron Fechter said to us, "I can still go into an arcade or into the carnival and there'll be a Whac-a-Mole game, and I step up, and I can get perfect on the game. And kids will just look at me and say, 'Wow, you must be the guy who invented the game or something.' "

Then he described his strategy. How do you get perfect at Whac-a-Mole? He said you don't try. Trying is counter-productive. Instead, you sit back and let the moles come to you.

There's certain parts of the brain and certain processes that we do that we've automated. We have enough experience, we have enough practice. When we apply the slower, controlled, cognitive effort, that can get in the way. So what we want to do is relinquish and turn down the cognitive control, and instead let these areas that are really specialized for this do their stuff.

Eight tips for winning brains

Self-awareness: Train yourself to interpret other people's facial expressions and body language by watching scenes from a movie on mute. Then watch the scene again, this time with volume, and compare how well your interpretations matched up. You can improve this skill over time.

Motivation: If you have a problem with procrastination, make large tasks feel more manageable by breaking them down into parts.

Focus: Like playing Whac-a-Mole, sometimes you can actually perform better when you're not concentrating too hard. If something's not coming to you despite your best efforts, try relaxing and letting the brain work on autopilot.

Emotional balance: Practice managing your emotions by changing your perspective of a situation. Research shows that if you think of a highly emotional event as a challenge rather than a problem, you can stay calmer and retain a better memory for details.

Memory: "Edit your brain," the authors say. Recognize and consciously purge useless information. Imagine sweeping it away, so you can concentrate on more useful data.

Resilience: When you're in a tough spot, think of a "resilience role model," a parent, teacher or mentor, and ask yourself what they would do in your situation. That way, you'll have more than your own resources to draw upon.

Adaptability: Try a few minutes of meditation a day to calm your thoughts. Studies show "regular yoga and meditation can increase cortical thickness in as little as eight weeks."

Brain care: Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, can help strengthen your mind.

Mark Fenske and Jeff Brown

 

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