How to Enhance Your Brain

Unlimitix Digs Into The Science on ‘Brain-Engineering’

Unlimitix
Unlimitix
Jun 17 · 6 min read

Can we become more intelligent? Can we deliberately help our brain develop quicker if we adhere to certain principles? Is our brain structure changeable? Three decades ago, leading scientists would have answered ‘no’ to those questions. During the last decades however, research on neurology experienced a bit of a shake. Researchers found that our brain is indeed plastic, that is ‘changeable’. They call this phenomenon ‘neuroplasticity’ and have invested a lot of time, brain power and money into discovering its workings and underlying ground rules.

For example, when researchers blindfolded people, they noticed a sudden increase in people’s ability to hear. Moreover, people’s ‘echolocation’ increased, which is the ability to get a feeling for one’s environment from echoes. For a long time, researchers could not make sense of these phenomena. Today, we know that our visual cortex, i.e. the area in the brain responsible for seeing, entirely transforms — partly adopting functions of the auditory cortex, i.e. the area in the brain responsible for hearing. This is an outstanding finding. For ages, researchers believed that the brain structure, once fixed, is not malleable at all. However, the opposite is true. Our brain changes quickly — in the example above already within 5 days. [1][2][3][4]

The proposed explanation is as interesting as the findings. It is posited that some kind of Darwinism drives our brain. Internal competition leads to the specification of certain brain areas on certain functions, such as hearing, tasting or seeing. This mechanism leads to the auditory cortex ultimately being the area in the brain that is responsible for hearing. The auditory cortex is hence best in hearing, as it is ‘trained’ on that specific task. However, any area in the brain can do anything — just not as efficiently. That means, the visual cortex can hear, the auditory cortex can feel, and so on. Thus, when you are suddenly refrained from receiving any sensory visual input, your visual cortex is no longer needed and starts taking on other functions, which it can perform, but just not as efficiently as seeing. [4]

The left side of your brain might hence not be the only part of your brain that can be rational, it might merely be the best in being rational.

Those findings have incredible implications for us, personally. First of all, the mere fact that our brain is malleable and able to perform almost any change is promising and gives us hope. Secondly, as research around those topics cumulates, it is increasingly clear which behaviour drives positive development of the brain. For instance, researchers connected a nerve-growth factor in our brain called BDNF to brain development. It functions like a fertiliser to our brain as it fosters the speed in which our brain builds neurons and helps those survive longer. BDNF is active in the hippocampus, which is an area in our brain responsible for our memory, and thus helps us prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Moreover, it increases higher order thinking and memory in general. [5]

To pose the question we’ve all been waiting for: How do we maximise BDNF and thus brain development? Norman Doidge writes in his book “the brain that changes itself”:

“An important nerve-growth factor is BDNF. It is constantly turned on during the critical period but turns off afterwards as we need stability. However, it gets turned on if something important, surprising or novel occurs, or if we make the effort to pay close attention.

Interestingly, the BDNF release and thus the development of our brain can be somewhat deliberately increased, by being more excited, focused or curious. We cannot really decide to be more excited, but we can purposely design our environment, habits and tasks so that we maximize excitement and thus learning. ‘Do what you love’ is therefore legitimate advice; at least from a neurological perspective. If your goal is to maximize brain development and learning, you should indeed do what you love. Yet, be aware that there are other factors that should be taken into account, too. I prefer the Ikigai, when it comes to decisions about life.

After quite a bit of context, let us talk about action steps.

  1. Get deep, non-interrupted sleep. Sleep is essential for your BDNF. There are several studies proving that sleep deprivation decreases BDNF release. Interestingly, however, a work-out can reverse those effects — at least in the short term. In general, I recommend you get at least 7,5 hours of sleep. The benefits in health and learning will outweigh the short term benefits of having a little more time. If you’d like to find out more, here is an entire article series on sleep (1,2,3,4). [6][7][8][9]
  2. Maximise excitement and curiosity. Both of those are known to trigger BDNF. As discussed above, this is not easy. You cannot simply be more excited about things. However, try to find your passions — especially those that are aligned with what you’re good at, what you’re paid for and what is good for the world. Another important point is to find excitement in the things you’re doing. Gamify them, adjust them slightly or look for the bigger picture — whatever helps you to find excitement. Moreover, reserve some time every week to reflect on how you can further increase excitement and curiosity. Doing small changes to the system continuously can have significant implications long-term.
  3. Focus. So far, we’ve investigated the benefits of focus in terms of productivity and happiness in one of our previous series of articles (1,2,3,4). Yet, we haven’t looked at focus from a learning perspective. Even for those who think multitasking makes them more productive — which is clearly and arguably an illusion — focus bears benefits for your long-term intellect.

‘Engineering’ your lifestyle can have incredible effects on your long-term success and wellbeing. If you start now to adjust your lifestyle slightly towards more BDNF release, how much more intelligent will you be? How much fitter might your brain be? How much more will you have accomplished? Even though I cannot quantify any answer to those questions, I can ensure that the benefits of adjusting your lifestyle so as to maximise BDNF release will have tremendous effects on your personal and professional life. Especially if learning is important for your job, for example if you are a consultant, a coder or a researcher, you will be overwhelmed by the cumulative positive consequences of those little changes.

In two weeks, there will be a second article that discusses further ways of maximising BDNF. Please note that there is no research yet that quantifies and perfectly explains the benefits of BDNF maximisation. Suggestions made in this article are built on sound interpretations on current research.

[1] Merabet, L.B., Hamilton, R., Schlaug, G., Swisher, J.D., Kiriakopoulos, E.T., Pitskel, N.B. (2008). Rapid and Reversible Recruitment of Early Visual Cortex for Touch. PLoS ONE 3(8): e3046. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003046

[2] Thaler, L., Arnott, S. R., Goodale, M. A. (2010). “Human Echolocation”. Journal of Vision. 10 (7): 1050. doi:10.1167/10.7.1050.

[3] Thaler, L., Arnott, S.R., Goodale, M.A. (2011). “Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts”. PLOS ONE. 6 (5): e20162. Bibcode:2011PLoSO…620162T. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020162. PMC 3102086. PMID 21633496.

[4] Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

[5] Bowling, H., Bhattacharya, A., Klann, E., Chao, M. V. (2016). Deconstructing brain-derived neurotrophic factor actions in adult brain circuits to bridge an existing informational gap in neuro-cell biology. Neural regeneration research, 11(3), 363–367. doi:10.4103/1673–5374.179031

[6] Giese, M., Unternährer, E., Hüttig, H., Beck, J., Brand, S., Calabrese, P., Eckert, A. (2013). BDNF: an indicator of insomnia? Molecular Psychiatry, 19, 151.

[7] Saadati, H., Sheibani, V., Esmaeili-Mahani, S., Darvishzadeh-Mahani, F., Mazhari, S. (2014). Prior regular exercise reverses the decreased effects of sleep deprivation on brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in the hippocampus of ovariectomized female rats. Regulatory Peptides, 194–195, 11–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regpep.2014.11.004

[8] Giese, M., Unternaehrer, E., Brand, S., Calabrese, P., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Eckert, A. (2013). The Interplay of Stress and Sleep Impacts BDNF Level. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76050. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0076050

[9] Zielinski, M. R., Kim, Y., Karpova, S. A., McCarley, R. W., Strecker, R. E., & Gerashchenko, D. (2014). Chronic sleep restriction elevates brain interleukin-1 beta and tumor necrosis factor-alpha and attenuates brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression. Neuroscience Letters, 580, 27–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2014.07.043

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