Health and brains
They – whoever ‘they’ are- say “you are what you eat”.
In health, this is probably true. If you eat poor quality food your health will decline and you will weaken. High quality food will have the converse effect.
Health is clearly a high priority. We spend nearly $3 trillion on healthcare each year. With greater social emphasis on prevention, weight loss and aesthetics, the importance of food is rising up the agenda. Collectively, the world spends more than $30 billion per year on nutritional supplements. The ‘fitness’ industry, misleading title and other faults aside, is one of the fastest growing in the world: gym memberships alone generate nearly $100 billion revenue worldwide.
We are clearly willing to spend money, if not time (if they aren’t one and the same thing: Hello Marx!), augmenting our physical health. We are increasingly keen on regulating what we put into our bodies.
It is my contention that we should be just as discriminating, if not more so, with what we put into our brains.
The concept of neuroplasticity says that the brain can change throughout an individual’s life. Brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.
Your brain can be changed by a range of factors, such as disease, injury, ageing, mould and other toxins (such as the Mercury in your Victorian era top hats – here’s looking at you, cosplayers – or the MSG in your Chinese takeaway.)
Some of these factors are avoidable, some are not. Our control over many may be limited.
One we can, and should, all take more control of is the information we feed our most complex and precious organ.
Research by Dr Daniel Amen, among others, shows not just that the brain can change, but that we can actively change the function of the brain through how we treat it.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Our brain is an incredible thing. It is one of the most complex systems we know. It is also the source of our emotions, our identity and our life.
And most of us neglect it.
Poor sleep, poor food and a stressful lifestyle can all damage our brains.
This is certainly worthy of a lifetime of posts, but for now let’s stick to an often unexamined factor we can all control: our information diet.
I first came across the notion of informational consumption influencing our lives while visiting a Hare Krishna temple / village in Australia. If you get chance, I highly recommend visiting this temple or any other Krishna set-up. A practising yogi who had lived there for some time told me that he never watches any violent images, and he never gets scared or angry. His hypothesis was that, at certain moments, our brains recall images we have fed them. Because he hadn’t exposed himself to any scary or violent images in a long time, his brain had much less alarming subject matter to work with.
I think there’s some weight to this theory.
times are we completely comfortable with something until we have a bad
experience? How often does this bad experience cause us to be at the least
apprehensive about repeating the activity in future?
This will of course depend on the novelty, and intensity of the experience, as well as how much evidence (other experience) we have to outweigh it.
Still, the principle holds: when encountering a similar or related experience, our brain conjures up the images of the previous experience, calling forth similar emotions.
More evidence can be found in our experience of childhood, and our observation of children. Many children are naturally fearless. They don’t know what’s bad for them. The parent is a sort of risk-monitor. First, they control the child’s environment to minimise risk. Next, they inform the child of the risk. This is often fruitless, and it is a well-known adage that a lesson only heard is not a lesson learned. Often the child needs to be burned once before he/she understands the danger of fire.
Once the child has been burned, their brain has a scary image. Whenever they go near fire, the brain will draw on this image to inform their decision. It will cause fear.
There are a few points to raise here:
1. Unseeing is not possible. As the comical phrase goes, there are some things that cannot be unseen. Like the blue waffle (LOL), or people being beheaded by ISIS (anti-LOL). Once the image is in there, you can’t force it out. You can repress it, push it out of mind, but sooner or later that bad boy will make its presence felt. This is the essence of the neuroses that Freud studied, giving birth to psychoanalysis.
With such images embedded in your swede, all you can do is provide different (better) images to counterbalance or drown out the bad ones. This is like covering corpses in flowers, or mending a broken relationship with daily acts of kindness. It takes time to cover the badness up, and its still there for a long time beneath the surface.
2. Your brain is more than you know. Our brain stores much more information than we realise. Even if you think it hasn’t affected you, it might have. The subconscious often twists and morphs things in ways that are hard to understand. Whatever you pour in there is having an effect of some kind, however imperceptible. If you don’t believe me, try running small experiments on yourself. Cut out one source or type of information and note the effects.
Act now for better brain
The thrust here is to treat your brain with greater respect than you treat anything else you own.
Watch what you feed it like a hawk. And see what happens.
Some practical ideas:
1. Avoid violent images. There is very good evidence that violent images make children more aggressive. These children become adults. There is also evidence to suggest a similar effect on grown adults. You can search your own soul on this one. I know that when I started watching Power, a horrendously mediocre and unoriginal show that is representative of much of the copy-cat trash pumped into our screens, I had more violent dreams and felt a bit more aggy. The same occurs when I play Halo, though admittedly this may be more down to my intense engagement than the subject matter itself.
2. Avoid low-quality content. Read and watch rigorous work. Your brain is a brilliant pattern-recogniser. It picks out trends and schemas without even trying. If you read trash, your brain will absorb this. If you read quality literature, it will absorb that. The same for TV.
3. Be mindful of TV. If you’re not watching it, turn it off. This is a common point of conflict in my household. If I’m not interested in the program, I’d rather have silence. Pumping in waves of detritus at a low level of concentration will only fragment and dilute your consciousness. Don’t bother. Going for a walk, taking a nap or having a conversation are all viable alternatives.
NB: This should go without saying, but the above is especially relevant to advertising. There are lots of people out there who want your attention, time and money. Don’t make it easy for them to take it.
4. Be careful who you talk to. Everyone has their own way of viewing the world. Each conversation you have involves the interaction of various conceptual frameworks, or systems of ideas. If you spend too much time listening to mediocre, unhappy or resentful people, guess what? You know it. It’s gonna seep into you. Motivator Jim Rohn famously said you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. There is a good deal of truth in this. The influence of other humans is an incredibly powerful thing. Be mindful of who you keep around you. They might be moulding you into a meanie.
I am sure there are some people who are reluctant to believe that they are influenced much by the external world. They want to believe that they are the captain of their own ship, the master of their destiny. This is – so far as I can see at least – quite foolish.
Yes, you do choose what you do. Yes, we should all take responsibility for our actions. These are noble sentiments and quite essential to the functioning of our normal understandings of praise and blame, our legal system, and our social structure. That said, if psychology and behavioural economics have taught us anything over the last centuries and decades respectively, it is that the power of human choice is severely bounded – or limited. We are all deeply influenced by our environment. FYI – I am a natural individualist. An outsider of sorts. If anyone should want to push a “Self-made/ personal autonomy” agenda, I certainly fit the bill. Fortunately, I do my best to make my views fit the facts, and in this case, the facts are that our brains are as much a product of genetics, environment and chance than any power of free will.
That said, we can choose to do the best we can with the freedom we do have. We can choose to shape our environment to our beliefs. We can choose what we watch, hear and see. We can choose to change the way our brains are shaped. And we should. There is no viable alternative.
BONUS CONTENT: The story of the fearless cows
During my time at the Krishna village, I also witnessed some of the largest, most muscular cows I had ever scene. Their horns were also something to behold. These cows were happy to be approached and touched by any human. Why? They were incredibly well-treated. They were raised like friends or family members. They had never experienced humans as an object of violence.