The Brain

T. Horne and S. Wootton 2009

The young adult brain

In 2004, brain imager, Jay Giedd realised that the explosive growth in the young adult brain normally continues till the age of 25, much longer than had previously been thought. He found that the development of the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that deals with decision making tends to lag behind the development of the rest of the brain. Small wonder that young adults struggle with reasoning, planning and making decisions, unless they are given specific metacognitive teaching and support.

Causes of damage and decline in the adult brain

It is fortunate that brain training can repair damage as the adult brain is susceptible to damage from –

  • Alcohol
  • Poor diet and additives in processed foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Grief, pessimism or depressed moods
  • Stress and raised blood pressure
  • Environmental threats
  • Lack of conversational relationship

If you stay healthy mental performance doesn’t necessarily decline as you age. In 2002 Quartz reported on the famous case of the 4000 nuns. The nuns who remained mentally active (teaching etc.) lived on average 4 years longer and their brain autopsies showed on average 40% more synapses and thicker myelin insulation on their axons. Thinking adds to your life and life into your years.

Vitamins and minerals

At least 10 different B vitamins affect the neurotransmitters in the brain. Beneficial effects from vitamins C, B1 and B5 and the minerals Boron, Zinc and Selenium are better obtained through long-term adjustments to diet rather than supplements. You can usefully increase the proportions of berries such as black and redcurrants, bilberries, strawberries and especially blueberries. Also try increasing the proportion of spinach, green cabbage broccoli and watercress. (Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables). Selenium is found in seafood, whole–grain bread, nuts and meat. Boron exists in broccoli, pears, peaches, grapes, nuts and dried beans and zinc in fish, beans and whole grains.

Beware too of fat-free diets. Without unsaturated fats in your diet your brain cannot produce acetylcholine and without this your brain cells will become ‘stiff’ and brittle. You will suffer memory loss and your thinking speed and accuracy will deteriorate. Such a fat-free diet may not only kill your brain cells it may also kill you! De Angelis found that low-fat diets increased death rates from depression, suicide and accidents. Eating protein increases the supply of neurotransmitters and the implication is that we should eat more if we wish to be mentally alert and quick thinking.

School breakfast clubs often offer toast and jam – this will rapidly metabolise into glucose and produce insulin-driven hunger pangs well before lunch. Even milk and cereal (especially if sugary) will burn up within two hours. To work, breakfast clubs must provide protein and complex carbohydrates.

The brain science of dark chocolate

The magnesium in dark chocolate decreases the coagulation of your blood. This will help your heart to deliver more blood to your brain. This will not only raise the thinking speed and thinking power of your brain, it will also protect your brain from the damage caused by high blood pressure. Dark chocolate also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors. These allow the levels of serotonin and dopamine in your brain to remain higher for longer, alleviating depression and producing feelings of well-being.

Free radicals attack and oxidise the DNA in your brain, creating growth points for tumours as well as the onset of premature ageing. Cheng Lee at Cornell University, USA, proved that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, called flavonols, which mop up the free radicals before they can oxidise your brain. It is twice as rich in flavonols as red wine and three times richer than green tea. The flavonols in dark chocolate also make your blood platelets less likely to stick together and thus less likely to cause brain damage through a stroke. Lee found that a normal cup of drinking chocolate, based on dark chocolate, contained about 600 mg of the flavonoid epicatechin.

Eating dark chocolate substantially increases your mental speed and energy because it contains the brain stimulant theobromine. (Caffeine can also give your brain a temporary boost but it has fatiguing short-term and more dangerous long-term side-effects.) The effect of theobromine is gentler and more sustained than that of caffeine, it lasts 4 times longer and is much kinder to the heart. Dark chocolate contains about 21% theobromine (up to 450mg per oz) and it works as a brain stimulant by relaxing muscles and helping to dilate veins and arteries thus allowing blood to flow more easily to the brain. Dark chocolate also contains up to 2.2% PEA (phenylethylamine) which activates the neurotransmitters in the brain which control mental attention and alertness.

Positive Thinking

Steps to overcoming negative emotions –

  • Carry out an audit only of your strengths. You have skills, resources and knowledge.
  • Forgive someone if only in your head. Let go of the negative memories that steal your head space, you need this for more positive thoughts.
  • Visualise how things will look when you have succeeded. Hear the applause and feel how you will feel at the moment of success.
  • Applaud yourself – discover you do not need the constant approval of those around you.
  • Try things that are difficult and give them your best shot. Accept that your best is good enough.
  • Admit that you are not all-powerful. You cannot be the cause of all that is bad or of bad feelings in others.

Steps to raise your optimism –

  • Collect qualifications and certificates
  • Read any further articles that catch your eye
  • Commit a random act of gratuitous kindness every day
  • Reduce the stress in your life
  • Spend time with people who share your sense of humour
  • Contact close family and old friends
  • Spoil yourself with meals out or shopping
  • Improve your appearance through exercise or tanning
  • Collect funny cards to send to people who are ill, to say thank you or for no reason
  • Keep a file of funny stories or jokes preferably at your own expense. Share one a day

The elements of involvement –

  • Your goal is clear – you know what you are trying to achieve
  • You feel up to it – you have the energy and resources
  • You feel you have a very good chance of achieving your goal
  • Your concentration can push aside any conflicting cares or concerns
  • You feel in control of the outcome
  • Your sense of achievement is immediate
  • Your sense of time is altered – how time flies when you are enjoying yourself


  • Explore what you are feeling before you try to think
  • Emotions can motivate, de-motivate or disable thinking
  • Hopes enhance performance. Anxiety and fear diminish it
  • Optimistic self-suggestion increases success in thinking tasks
  • Persistent low mood not only impairs thinking and health, it can have other serious consequences
  • The pursuit of happiness is fruitless
  • The pursuit of body-based pleasure, laughter, involvement and satisfaction will benefit the speed and accuracy of your thinking

Role of Physical Exercise

Physical training benefits your brain generally and your memory specifically. In 2005 Kramer used MRI scans to show that the normal rate at which your brain loses weight with age can be reduced, or even reversed, as a result of physical exercise. Exercise not only results in a stronger flow of blood, glucose and oxygen to the brain, it also stimulates the growth of new neurons, especially in and around your hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory.

To improve your memory, stick to reading aloud, writing and doing simple sums as quickly as you can. The reading aloud should be about topics that are new and interesting to you and the writing should preferably involve lots of drafting and re-drafting.

Environmental factors

In 2007 Professor Deepak Prasher found that noises exceeding 75 decibels raise your blood pressure, which damages your brain. Sudden intermittent background noises are more distracting to your brain than consistent high background noise. Background music has been found to reduce fatigue and improve concentration only if it is well matched to the thinking task in hand and to your preference as an individual. Communal background music actually impairs the thinking ability and concentration of around 20% of all people.

Changes in air pressure can alter your behaviour and trigger poor performance. Sunlight can also affect performance. The length and brightness of daylight affects your body’s melatonin and hormone levels and this influences the release of neurotransmitters in your brain, which affects alertness, responsiveness and mood and each, in turn, can affect your ability to think.

US defence studies report that heat stress (combination of high temperature and humidity) dramatically lowers scores in intellectual and physical tasks. High temperatures reduce performance in tasks that require accuracy and speed. A rise of only one degree in brain temperature is enough to disturb cognitive functioning.

Excessive stress increases the rate at which your body produces cortisol. High levels of cortisol in the body cause you to feel confused and can reduce your ability to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Research by Ostrander on over 4000 students demonstrated that excessive stress impairs learning, thinking, memory and problem solving and reduces IQ scores by up to 14 points (a very significant reduction).

Light affects your mood and your mental energy. It also affects your mental alertness and speed of thinking. For brainwork you need bright light and preferably natural light. Pierce Howard reports that three schools in North Carolina improved average test scores by up to 14% by increasing the use of natural lighting. If supplemented by artificial light use full spectrum ‘blue’ tubes – many bulbs emit too much red and violet light.

Computers, mobiles, Wi-Fi, televisions, faxes, copiers and air-conditioning can have damaging effects, as they affect the electrically charged particles called ‘ions’ which are present in the air at all times. The average concentration of negative ions inside air-conditioned offices is commonly around 150 per cubic centimetre. This should be compared to an average of 4000 in the mountains or 3000 in unpolluted air at ground level. Negative ions promote alpha waves of longer amplitude in the brain and these are associated with creative thinking. A low concentration of negative ions affects the level of serotonin in the blood and, according to Harper, this affects your ability to carry out tasks that require quick thinking and calculation.

Poor ventilation, traffic pollution and other people smoking all reduce the proportion of oxygen in the air. Neurons depend on oxygen to produce adenosine triphosphate, the fuel that energises the cell. Oxygen is carried in your body by the haemoglobin in the blood. When the air you breathe contains carbon monoxide this combines irreversibly with the haemoglobin in your blood to form carboxyhaemoglobin. This permanently reduces the capacity of your blood to carry oxygen to the brain.

Reflective Thinking

How to do better in the future

You can make the future profit from your past by using reflective thinking. This involves thinking about past experiences, yours and those of other people, in such a way that you can come to a present conclusion that strongly implies a future change. Reflective thinking pulls you out of the past, through the present and propels you into the future.

One way you can enhance your reflective thinking is to use visual thinking to replay your experience as a video tape in your mind. Try to imagine the tactile sensations as well as tastes and smells as you see and hear the tape. Better still, recount the experience to someone who is free to ask questions about what you remember. Focus first on positive feelings about the event, then express any negative feelings. The following questions can help:

Recalling what happened then:

  • Why did I act as I did?
  • What were the key issues?
  • What was I trying to achieve?
  • How did other people feel about it?
  • How do I know how they felt about it?
  • How did I feel at different points during this experience?
  • What were the consequences of my actions on others?
  • What influenced my decision making and actions?
  • What else should have influenced me?

Thinking about it now:

  • How do I feel about it now?
  • What other choices might I have had?
  • Could I have dealt better with the situation?

Looking forward to the future:

  • How might I support others better in the future?
  • What might I do differently as a result of what I know and think now?

Einstein was a ‘slow’ child, a late developer. He did not talk till he was 3 years old. He did poorly in school. Yet he revolutionised the world of physics. After he died scientists found no differences between his brain and yours and mine. Intelligence is not determined by the structure of the brain but by how you use it to think. It may be possible to think without learning but it’s not possible to learn without thinking. You cannot turn information into useful action without thinking. Applied thinking turns information into knowledge on which useful action can be based. Learning has 3 purposes:

  • To develop concepts
  • To develop skills that enable you to apply concepts
  • To develop the whole ‘persona’ the qualities, attitudes and dispositions which enable further growth without outside intervention.

Traditional teaching often neglects the second; modern teaching often neglects the third.

Learning Styles

‘The UK espouses theories of learning styles with scant regard for the evidence’. Phil Revell 31/05/2005 The Times.

Professor Coffield led a team which reported, in 2005, on the validity of the 13 most widely used theories of learning style and learning cycle. This included VAK (visual auditory kinaesthetic learning styles) which is the theory most widely used in the UK. His recommendation was that their use be discontinued. This recommendation has not been implemented to date in many schools and colleges. Similarly the GSD (Gregorc’s style delineator of 4 learning styles) learning style delineator was found to be ‘theoretically and psychometrically flawed’.

In short, brain research does not appear to support the idea that quality, persistence and extent and depth of learning are achieved by allowing the learner to use only a preferred learning style. What is important is that learning activities stimulate several parts of the brain simultaneously since this promotes the increased neural interconnectedness associated with the development of increased cognitive capacity. Repetition and practice are also important since they bequeath thickening of the myelin insulation on the axons of the neurons and this favours future thinking speed and accuracy.

Since learning involves thinking and thinking is difficult in groups, learning programmes or training courses which are heavily dependent on group work should be avoided. Paired learning, on the other hand, greatly aids thinking and mentoring, appraising, coaching and counselling relationships are to be encouraged. Visual thinking is not only helpful when predicting and learning but, because it involves at least 23 separate areas of the brain, it is a great warm-up and a good way to expand the connectedness and overall cognitive capacity of your brain.

Learning through thinking

  • Favour total immersion in multi-faceted, multi-level problem solving
  • Seek out experiences which are emotionally involving
  • Have the kind of critical conversations that develop your capacity for internal dialogue. Rehearse the application of your ideas in ‘your mental laboratory’.
  • Where possible, avoid working on your own. Involve someone else
  • Avoid groups except for information gathering or feeding back inferences and implications
  • Paired working is the most effective. Develop mentoring, coaching and counselling relationships
  • Seek out tutors who emphasise exploration and shared learning.

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