Exercise Your Way to a Better Brain

Motion is self-expanding. We can easily succumb to the nonchalance of sitting on a couch and watching endless hours of Netflix. However, a sedentary approach to life is a shortcut to an accelerated death. To grow and live long, we must stay in motion. Physical activity endeavors from Pilates to sports to yoga all contribute handsomely to enhancing your body not just physically, but mentally. All the small things add up in the end, but we can temporarily obviate our inevitable demise by expending more kinetic energy, daily. The benefits of the impacts that exercise places on your brain are enough to convince any sane person to get moving post-haste. The brain can atrophy (cerebral atrophy) just like muscles can with underuse.

Throughout life we are battered by pangs of distress, emotional despondency, injuries, illnesses, diseases, hapless happenings, brain cell deterioration, etc. Moreover, most of these maladies come at the expense of our own ignorance. We’re taught early in life how important physical activity is in gym class. Some of us adhere, some throw the information in the back of our cerebellum only to be retrieved when it’s too late; or when we’ve been perturbed by unsettling news that an impending problem with our body will soon be taking place.

One of my favorite platitudes that I can’t say enough, “The time is now,” really hits the nail on the head on why we shouldn’t delay the advancement of our mind & bodies because tomorrow is truly not guaranteed. I understand how easy it is to be lazy; the willingness to not unleash any energy seems like a quality that an obese society cherishes. There’s too many avenues of contentment and complacency that, and much to our own chagrin, end up withering us away — even unknowingly.

Neurobiologically, exercise releases cortisol — the stress hormone that increases fat and stifles memory consolidation — which is a major benefit to adapting to stressors that may offset your system’s homeostasis. Along with strengthening your immune system, exercise can increase euphoria and feelings of bliss by the production of endorphins. Hence the term “Runner’s high” that befalls you once you reach a plateau of running and the feeling of comfortability and oneness with the specific activity. Long walks stimulate creativity and de-stress you from whatever may be burdening you at the moment.

Alzheimer’s, the terrible neurodegenerative disease that affects millions of people,  can be slowly prevented by increasing your movement. Scientists and psychologists have proven that a reduction of cognitive decline can be the result of implementing small, 20-30 minute routines into your daily regimen. Obesity is a big risk factor for Alzheimer’s, so continuing to shed body weight can stave off the eventual disease and lower the incidence rate.

Cognitive functioning and brain plasticity will be expanded 10-fold by instituting any form of aerobic exercise into your lifestyle. The brain will become sharper, motor skills will improve, brain fogginess will subside, the ability to learn new things will increase, and your memory will strengthen. These are advantageous points enough to keep you from ever wanting to take the escalator again.

As time progresses, we slowly lose more and more brain cells. We just aren’t made to last forever. Our bodies fade just as ink does on a sopping wet canvas. Death is inescapable, but we can decelerate the process by becoming more active. A civilization in motion is one that is highly prosperous and productive. Showing our kids the importance of ‘go-getter-ness’ and relaying the undeniable benefits of movement can take our planet to greater heights. As the battle with obesity and decline in brain functioning continues, understand that you choose whether or not you want to make yourself better. Be wise, get moving.

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5 Ways Your Brain Tricks You

Every decision we make goes through a bevy of obstacles before we reach the “final answer.” Our cognition is affected by everything from genes to mood to upbringing. We often think we are impartial in our steps to coming to a decision, but our brains sometimes will say otherwise. Here, I present five cognitive biases—an error in thinking, or a distortion of our perception of reality—that blur our views on things and allow us to be led astray by irrationality.

Confirmation Bias

This widely popular bias can be reinforced by any immediate search engine. Confirmation bias is the tendency to confirm whatever unsubstantiated, preconceived belief you have by only searching for information that bolsters your view and disregards disconfirming evidence. For example, on Twitter, there’s a “search” function, which allows you to type in queries on anything you want. So, if you want to confirm your bias that a movie is terrible, just type in the keywords “Godzilla” and “Terrible,” and you’ll find people agreeing with your bias, thus reinforcing your previously held notion. I find myself doing this time to time; it does offer up a pang of satisfaction.

Hindsight Bias

Ever get the feeling that you “knew it all along” after the occurrence of something has taken place? If so, you may be suffering from hindsight bias. It is an illusion that an event is more predictable after-the-fact rather than before. We often don’t “know it all along,” but since our brain tricks us, we selectively recall information that may have been slightly presented to us then we rearrange the narrative to make it seem like we did. This can oversimplify natural cause and effect properties, and create a chasm in understanding because it was so seemingly “predictable.”

Gambler’s Fallacy

When a person believes that the probability of an event happening again is decreased because it has already happened, it is a glitch in thinking. This fallacy is ubiquitous in casinos, and owners dupe gamblers by making them think that each spin at the roulette table is NOT independent of the previous spin, but that’s erroneous. When you witness black come out 60 times in a row, it does not mean that the chances of red coming out next are higher than the last spin. Why? Because each spin (or event) is independent, meaning the probabilities reset back to their normal standards. The chances of a coin being flipped heads or tails is always 50 percent, regardless of what has happened before.

Negativity Bias

The old platitude, “Bad news travels fast” fits perfectly with this bias. Negativity has a stronger impact on us than positive experiences. This can be seen as a defense mechanism to shield ourselves from future negative situations. Our amygdala—the fear center in our brain—has been honed to protect us from threats by inducing responses that increase our chemicals to preserve ourselves. All news outlets thrive off of bad news, and we seem to succumb to that because we get comfortable with thinking “that’s not us; I should be grateful.” Think about how negative comments stick with you much longer than positive ones. Evolutionarily speaking, negativity reminds us that we’re fragile and not perfect, so it keeps our heads up in times of hardship.

The Ingroup Bias

Everyone has had their “cliques” or “crews” back in the day. Remember thinking that your crew was better than any outside one? The ingroup bias is a condition in which you favor people that belong to your group over ones who don’t. This bias can be harmless when speaking of elementary school, but it can stir up hate and anguish toward others when infused in something like religion. Fundamental religion subscribers often take umbrage to people who oppose their beliefs and will act unscrupulously because “their” group is correct. This can undeniably distort our vision of what’s reasonable and what isn’t.

The next time you’re at an intersection of uncertainty, be wise; make sure to consider that your brain may be leaning toward a bias of which you are unaware.

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We’re Nothing But a Victim Of Our Brain

There’s nothing more dehumanizing than realizing that you are beholden to a part of your brain of which you have no control–the unconscious. For years, philosophers have squabbled over whether or not there’s free will, or, rather, are we just an amalgamation of neurons being shot off and transmitted throughout our prefrontal cortex thereby mitigating our sense of self. It’s quite evident that we aren’t always the drivers of our bodies and the authors of our thoughts, but astonishingly, the observers. This concept of a lack of free will is somewhat arcane, but is being uncovered slowly by neuroscience. Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are derived from our unconscious (once dubbed as the “subconscious;” both terms are interchangeable.) Our predispositions and predilections are primarily out of our control; it’s only at the moment they arise that we feel we’ve created these feelings–which of course is illusory. Moreover, we’re plagued by cognitive biases that we generally fall victim to in the midst of quick-thinking. But, we aren’t robots (as far as i know) and we do waffle over choices ad infinitum until we stumble upon an answer that is most conducive to our wellbeing. However, if something is unbreachable, such as the aforementioned unconscious which makes up the majority of our actions, aren’t we not truly responsible for most of our wrongdoings, missteps, and negative behavior, given that we had no other choice? Aren’t we just playing to the beat of our own brain? If we were able to choose differently, wouldn’t we need a different brain that doesn’t constitute a potential predictable outcome of which you had zero choice in developing?

Brain processes that happen automatically with little to no conscious effort surprisingly occur more than we think. Experiments conducted at the University of Columbia asked participants to perform a set of tasks under functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). One of the tasks was pressing a specific button with their right or left hand, which seemingly would be unpredictable to onlookers and one’s self. However, what the participants didn’t know was that whatever choices they eventually chose, it was already decided by their unconscious 7 seconds before with 98% accuracy! The FMRI was beaming with blood flow to that specific area in the brain which would press the right or left button. This stood as a clear indicator that our unconscious is in the driver seat and we are just the presenters of what it chooses, in the end. As soon as consciousness kicks in, it’s by that point we are duped into thinking we’ve actually, consciously, made the decisions ourselves.

We are constricted and influenced by our genes, environment, and evolutionary upbringing, all of which we had no conscious modifications toward. When you really inspect your thoughts, you’ll come to a stark realization that thoughts arise out of nowhere. We tend to witness our inner lives so frequently that we aren’t jarred by the outcomes of things that happen solely because we think we’re always in control and it was our fault for choosing this or that. Causes and effects that happen systematically in the universe make things irreversible or unchangeable; if you were given a chance to redo your final decision on something, as long as the universe is configured the same way (mostly your brain & body) then you’ll choose that same exact choice the second time around.

Think of all the chemicals that propel you into a merry temperament or a testy mood. These emotions are sustained through a myriad of brain functioning variables that are mostly out of our grasp. If we really have absolute free will, wouldn’t we all be in great shape, happy as a clam, smart as whip, and in deep love? Our brain dictates our behavior and we can’t tap into our most profound facet of our brain that’s responsible for most of how we act. Thus, as disconcerting as it may be, we are, which Sam Harris so elegantly states: “You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm”

Cognitive biases also have their way of manipulating us into using shortcuts as survival tactics developed through years of trial and error. The confirmation bias–a bias which tends to favor the preconceived beliefs a person thinks are true no matter how much opposing evidence is provided– is what keeps inveterate traditions around. I find myself conforming to the confirmation bias sometimes by looking up something that favors my outlook on a particular subject, but usually things that are opinionated and trivial. This bias can be detrimental when people start believing in unrealistic things and devise their life around something that’s extraordinarily farcical such as thinking UFO’s are hovering over your house every-night, for the odd and narcissistic sake that they want to abduct you and no one else. Blocking out contrary evidence can hamper someone’s mental development and ultimately affect those around you. Conspiracy theorists and the like tend to gravitate toward conformation of their irrational notions rather than the dis-conformation of what lies beneath the veracity of that belief. We are preprogrammed to act this way in order for the brain to make sense of things in an easier fashion and to fill the gaps in our logic. Overcoming this bias takes practice and an open-minded attitude to see things from both sides and recognize that empirical evidence supersedes belief no matter how near and dear that belief may be to you.

I think the for most part our brains have been molded over years and years of evolution to act a certain way. And since we don’t exist in an era where survival is urgent every single day, we’re burdened with these subtle glitches in our thinking that leave us swayed toward one side rather than the other. Our will is finite; it can only go so far. Some people can wake up tomorrow and decide to go on a strict diet, while others will vacillate the idea until they’ve essentially run out of time. Our brains are plastic and we can mend them to some degree, but we cannot replace them (not yet at least.) So, whichever way your brain is constructed you have to realize your strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly because your brain has an uncanny way of misleading you towards conclusions that may be good for you in the moment, but harmful for you in the long run.

 

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Are Humans Getting Dumber or Smarter?

           Here’s the caveat: I am leaning toward the former. You would presumably think that since technology is diffused more so than it was 100 years ago that we’d be tremendously smarter, but it seems as if our intelligence is getting impeded by our ignorance. Albeit, it’s generally difficult to put intelligence under one heading; it’s an ambiguous term that can be quantified in many different ways—the most popular being the IQ test. However, studies indicate that our IQs have been steadily climbing in the past century, but Smartphones seemingly buttress any type of uncertainty we’re fraught with, whereas 200 years ago these things needed to be committed to memory. Cellphones take away from the hands-on working memory we’ve been burdened with for the past 100,000 years, which puts an abridged life span on things we assimilate. So, we may be getting both dumber and smarter, but we are struggling to adhere to basic principles and facts that befall on our civilization, unremittingly. Another thing, which I will primarily focus on is willful ignorance; which isn’t going to provide our planet with prosperity; instead, it takes the route to dystopia where people are constantly muddling misinformation and bickering over pseudosciences. My gripes, that continue to get my blood to boil, are the persisting battle to accept homosexuals and the never-ending rejection of science. I stick with my theory: the smart people, or those who want to be smart, are becoming more intelligent, but unfortunately, the obtuse people remain stagnant and obstinate, leading to less overall intelligence.

          I think intelligence not only corresponds with a comprehension capacity, but also to the cognizance of what’s happening to oneself and the environment. Smart people are aware of malnutrition and thus look toward healthy foods to keep themselves around longer than usual. The rise in technological advancements has led the way to pure laziness, which obviously engenders obesity. Sapient beings should realize this and attack it at its roots, but we don’t—willful ignorance. According to the Health Organization, from 2004 to 2010, obesity increased from 11% in American adults. It’s not hard to adumbrate that this is a bad omen for years to come since many food distributors are selling deleterious processed foods to get more gain on their product.

          Climate change is a dire problem that is nearly irreversible at this point because of the narrow-mindedness coming from the naysayers and deniers. But, the evidence for global warming is incontrovertible: a study revealed 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is anthropogenic (man-made). Now, I’m not sure if the average lay person is more astute than any esteemed scientist (embrace the pun), but if I were a betting man, I’d listen to the scientists who painstakingly and feverishly work at understanding what’s happening to our climate. And, for those unsure about global warming, here’s a short summation: Global warming is the excessive release of greenhouse gases (Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) into our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation that traps the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, giving rise to the earth’s average temperature. Furthermore, this opens a Pandora’s box: sea levels rise, storms’ intensity increases, droughts become longer, extinction plagues animals, a scarcity of food and water occurs, and there is a proliferation of fatal diseases.  In order to remedy this bleak situation, we must look toward alternative energy sources, but we remain unchanged and are elongating the resolution process. This, my friends, is willful ignorance: you can try to run on a broken foot, but there comes a time when one must be prudent and get healthy before making things worse.

          In the year 2014, the ubiquity of hatred and ostracism of homosexuals truly baffles me. It’s obvious that genes have something to do with being gay; I mean, if you’re heterosexual, try to choose to be suddenly gay–you can’t. That’s beside the point, though. We’re splitting hairs over the same sort of nonsense that divided us as a nation only a mere 60 years ago, and that’s racism. Now it’s just a different minority. A homophobic person really is masquerading something more sinister deep down. Whether it’s because they aren’t cut from the same cloth as you (narcissism) or because your religion tells you it’s bad (dogma), it’s still morally reprehensible to dislike someone because they’re different than you. It’s not like we all sat in front of a big screen and got to create ourselves, atom by atom; we had no choice in any of our physical make up. Therefore, there should be no problem with homosexuals on any level. Given the multifarious diversity of life on planet Earth, it would be perverse of you not to understand that differences exist.

          The Pew Research Center recently released a study that indicated one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution. This finding is exasperating to say the least. The planet screams evolution in thousands of different ways, from the growth of disease to the rise and fall of dinosaurs; it’s clear that the planet is billions of years old. It is old enough to have tiny nuances in each new generation that brought us from single celled organisms and common ancestors millions of years ago. A total of 98.5% of scientists treat biological evolution as a fact—as the process of continual development from successive generations. Once again, willful ignorance is apparent. The numbers don’t lie, and evolution has provided us with a myriad of apposite medicines because diseases themselves evolve.  Most people assert that evolution is just a theory, and indeed it is. But, it is a scientific theory, which, in the hierarchy of credibility, stands higher than a law. Theories come with a preponderance of empirical evidence that is tested thoroughly throughout years of intricate studies. It has yet to be disproven, and it fits perfectly with what we know about the planet.

          The willful ignorance that I touched on is an epidemic that is preventing our consciousness from expanding. All of the information I presented is a couple clicks away; it just takes a spark of curiosity and common sense to discern the malarkey from the truth. I’m no luddite, but I know that the tsunami of information that gets blasted into our brains daily can easily render us susceptible to gullibility and unsureness about what’s true and what isn’t. So, back to my main point: are we getting dumber or smarter? The answer is both; scientists and pundits of enlightened subjects seem to be thriving exponentially while laymen remain static, constantly looking to confirm their bias and turning a blind eye to reality. I try to question everything but am extremely receptive when learning new things. The truth may be discomfiting and somewhat incomprehensible, but for us to become smarter, we first have to accept what’s patently staring right at us. Einstein once said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” Let’s not be the ones who fall victim to those sentiments.

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Photo courtesy of Lee Verdecchia