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How Your Brain Works & Changes

Key Takeaways

  • The nervous system (connections between brain, spinal cord, and body) governs all biological systems of the body

  • The five main functions of the nervous system are: sensation, perception, feelings/emotions, thoughts, actions/behavior

  • The nervous system can be reflexive (top-down) or deliberate (bottom-up)

  • Neuroplasticity is the process in which neurons change connections so you can go from things being challenging to things being reflexive

  • Young brains are incredibly plastic but adults can take actionable steps to improve plasticity

  • Sleep is a critical piece to optimize neuroplasticity: plasticity doesn’t take place in real-time, it happens during sleep and deep rest – get better at falling asleep and staying asleep

  • Steps to improve neuroplasticity: approach learning in 90-minute blocks, knowing the first 5-10 minutes will be difficult but improve over time- our bodies continue the rhythms of our 90-minute sleep cycles throughout the day

  • Test learning new information at different times throughout the day to see when you are most optimal.

What Is The Nervous System?

  • The nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord, and connections to organs and the rest of the body

  • Nervous system is way you function at every level: continuous loop of connections between brain and spinal cord to body, and vice versa

  • Nervous system governs all biological systems of the body

  • Neuron: nerve cell

  • Synapses: gaps between neurons which pass chemicals between neurons

  • Our body is essentially an electrical system, passing nerve cells to direct movement, feelings, and experiences

  • Mechanism behind Déjà vu sensation: neurons that were active in one circumstance are becoming active again in the same circumstance

  • Speech and language are controlled by separate parts of the nervous system

  • Our brain is a map of our experience

  • Nervous system can be reflexive or deliberate in action

  • Reflexive = bottom-up; automatic steps

  • Deliberate = top-down; takes into consideration duration, path, outcome

Five Main Functions Of The Nervous System

  • Sensation: life experience is filtered by sensory receptors – or neurons that filter and generation feeling in body parts (e.g., fingertips detect heat, ears detect sound, etc.)

  • Perception: ability to take what we’re sensing and make sense of it; perception is under the control of your attention

  • We can place “spotlights” of attention on a few different things at one time – this is multi-tasking

  • When rested, attention is absolutely under our control

  • Feelings/emotions: release of neuromodulators (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, etc.); receptors on different organs of the body

  • Feelings and emotions are contextual

  • In trauma: memories don’t get erased but the emotional load of memories can be reduced

  • Thoughts: draw on what’s happening in the present, things we remember from the past, and what we imagine the future to be; thoughts can be reflexive and deliberate

  • Actions/behaviors: conversion of sensations, perception, feelings, thoughts into action

Neuroplasticity: Our Ability To Change Nervous System

  • Requires top-down processing and feeling of agitation and strain because you are trying to shut down a circuit

  • Impulsivity is a lack of top-down processing

  • Neuroplasticity: neurons change connections so you can go from things being challenging to things being reflexive

  • Most neuroplasticity is self-directed

  • Two important questions to consider: (1) What particular aspect of my nervous system am I trying to change? (2) What is structure/regimen to engage neuroplasticity?

  • We can direct neural changes in the brain more than other organs in the body – e.g., we can become less reactive to certain situations but can’t control how well we digest a food

  • Young brains are incredibly plastic – young children can learn multiple languages much easier than adults

  • In children born with blindness: area of the brain that would light up for vision, reprograms and lights up for brail reading

  • Adult brain can change in result to experience

  • Plasticity in adult human nervous system is controlled by neuromodulators (dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine)

  • When something bad happens we release epinephrine (makes us feel agitated) and acetylcholine (intense, perceptual spotlight)

  • Epinephrine creates alertness and increased attention; acetylcholine highlights or tags neurons active in that event so they become active again in that instance in the future

Importance Of Sleep & Focus

  • No neuroplasticity occurs in real-time during the event – strengthening of synapses occurs during sleep and non-sleep deep rest

  • In sleep, we are only in relation to what’s happening inside of us – deliberate processes are not on

  • Periods of non-sleep, deep rest are key where we turn off duration path and outcomes and attention drifts from strain to reflexive

  • Sleep cycles occur in 90-minute rhythms – you are not in deep sleep immediately, it takes a few minutes of agitation before the body relaxes

  • Just 20 min of deep rest (turning off deliberate thoughts) accelerates neuroplasticity

  • To optimize neuroplasticity: get better at falling asleep, staying asleep, and keeping the brain in the idle state

Role Of Autonomic Nervous System In Neuroplasticity

  • The autonomic nervous system controls unconscious bodily functions

  • It governs the transition between alert and focus

  • Sympathetic: associated with alertness, “fight or flight” system

  • Parasympathetic: associated with calmness, “rest and digest” system

  • To engage neuroplasticity, direct transition between wakefulness and sleep, and sleep and wakefulness

Action Steps To Improve Neuroplasticity

  • Context: 90-minute rhythms of sleep cycles continue throughout the day

  • Engage in a focused bout of learning throughout the day: first 5-10 minutes will feel unnatural but improve as 90-minute block progresses

  • Test learning blocks at different times – do you do better in the morning, afternoon, or at night?


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