We all know the benefits for our bodies of exercising regularly and eating well, but it turns out keeping active is good for our brains too.
And it’s because of stress.
Stress produces cortisol, which then “seeps into the brain, and basically starts to damage the dendritic spines — the connections in the brain, so you get a much less connected brain and it becomes much more difficult to think flexibly and creatively,” explained Cambridge neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow at last month’s Not For Profit People conference, hosted by ethicaljobs.com.au in Melbourne.
A range of studies have shown that things like going out for a jog can help to mitigate the effects of stress on these connections within the brain, she says.
Some people have naturally high rates of a hormone called BDNF — brain-derived neurotrophic factor — which nourishes and cultivates new nerve cells that have just been born in the brain, helping them be productive under stress. For those without this natural advantage, exercise can help boost production of BDNF.
But it’s not just the boring stuff that’s good for you. Socialising and a good night’s sleep also help.
“Exercise can help new nerve cells be born in the hippocampus, a key region in the brain that’s involved in learning and memory,” Critchlow says.
“So you’re allowing more connections to form within the brain. If you mix exercise with exploring new environments, keeping socially active and discussing new ideas with people, then that helps these new nerve cells that have just been born — even within the adult brain — to connect and integrate in the circuit board of your brain, to form a new circuit.”
The enabler for all these helpful habits is positivity.
“It’s very difficult to stay physically active, socially active, eat healthily, get a good night’s sleep, and challenge your brain, if you’re feeling a bit glum or depressed,” Critchlow argues.
“What I do to stay positive is I keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, I write down three things I’m really grateful for from that day in the hope that it will help me think more positively and also think about what I can do to pay forward and help other people for the next day, to help improve their day.”
Listening to your emotions is important.
“There’s a huge amount of information processing our brain is having to do, and not all of it occurs at the conscious level, and that’s really what emotions are for,” she explains.
“They’re kind of tags in unconscious processing, things we’re not aware of. There’s a lot of information that’s being assimilated, and emotions help to highlight a lot of that unconscious information, to help us inform our decision-making. So listen to your intuitive voice, that gut feeling you might have, and try and make sense of it.”
She recommends a few key considerations for managers to improve the wellbeing of their staff — which will probably improve their own wellbeing too.
“Articulate your thought processes. That can help boost confidence in your leadership and it can help train team members in strategic decision-making skills down the line.”
Autonomy is important. People should feel they can take time off or work flexibly if they need to, especially if they need to deal with an emergency in their personal life.
Tap into the “reward circuit” — “allowing people to know they are providing value and meaning, and understand the importance of what they’re doing”.
“It not only keeps people productive but helps to foster innovative decision-making,” says Critchlow.
Clearly communicate how you arrive at your decisions, she adds. “Articulate your thought processes. That can help boost confidence in your leadership and it can help train team members in strategic decision-making skills down the line.”
Interestingly, research shows direct eye contact between people synchronises their brainwaves. This improves learning and helps build consensus and bonding between individuals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well if you try and teach somebody something over Skype or over television, though.
We are each wired slightly differently when it comes to things like perceptions of risk, with some people more highly attuned to threat and others less so.
“Both types of brains, both types of people, are very important,” thinks Critchlow.
“Research shows direct eye contact between people synchronises their brainwaves. This improves learning and helps build consensus and bonding between individuals.”
“The first group are very good at assessing situations and seeing where the threat may lie, and the second group are looking not at the present, but at the future, to see how we can solve a problem more creatively. Both types of people, to my mind, seem to be quite important.”
Neuroscience has shown something we often notice intuitively — that we each have “a slightly flawed, untrue version of reality”, says Critchlow, whose PhD research focused on how we form subjective views of the world.
“It’s only by sharing our flawed perception of the world we can get closer to a real reality,” she explains.
“Be aware of the fact your brain is constantly making assumptions based on past experiences, so try not to assume too much. Do question things as well.”