Exercising the mind – Improving mental acuity

By Judith C. Tingly

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Use it or lose it

The term neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ever changing structure and activity. Whether a brain is growing, declining or unchanging is dependent on things like an individual’s genes and day-to-day habits and experiences.

Wilma Koustaal, Ph.D, a cognitive neuroscientist, describes a study illustrating neuroplasticity in her 2012 award-winning book The Agile Mind. All participants int he study initially had a brain scan to determine the sturcture of their brains. half of the participants were asked to learn a three-ball cascade juggling routine in the three-months that followed. They all succeeded at the task. The other half were told to live as usual and come back in three months. next, all participants underwent a second brain scan. The jugglers’ brains showed an increase int he number of neurons, particularly in areas connected to motion sensitivity and visual-spatial attention. The brains of the non-jugglers showed no change.

The jugglers were told to abstain from juggling for three months. A follow-up scan demonstrated how brain growth shown previously in this group was lost after three months of no juggling. The adage “use it or lose it” describes ti well. Brain fitness follows the same pattern as physical fitness. You may exercise regularly for years, but when you stop for a couple of weeks or a month – whoosh!- fitness is lost. Plus, getting it back is never as quick and easy in losing it.

I recently had to miss several months of Toastmasters meetings. Upon my return, during my first meeting back, I fumbled words and made errors as the timer. To lift my brain function, I quickly signed up to be the Toastmaster for the next meeting. Now that I understand neuroplasticity, I have a good answer for people who ask me why I’ve stayed in Toastmasters for 30 years. I tell them I remain in Toastmasters to keep my brain stimulated , growing and sending out new shoots.

Reduce Stress and Regulate Emotions

If you are engage in negative self-talk it means you’re not yet regulating your emotions. Here are some ways to lift your brain away from stress into calm.

  • Imagine you have reduced the volume of  your negative self-talk , sent it off to Siberia in a hot air balloon, or erased it from the chalkboard in your brain.
  • Block out the negative self-talk with repetitive realistic thinking : I can do this and I’m learning from it. Or, Done is better than perfect.
  • Briefly remove yourself from the emotional situation, if possible. Go outside and coax your mind to recall a memory of a previous speaking success or a good emotional experience. Or just focus intently on the moment : Right now I’m walking calmly up to the lectern and preparing to shake hands with the Toastmaster.

Brain imagery shos that meditation can help regulate emotions and reduce stress. It also can improve one’s attention span, the ability to focus, the working memory and other executive brain functions. To become a good lister, evaluator, Table Topics participant, speaker and more, we need to avoid distractions and increase our attention span.

Strategic allocation and success

Research from the University of Washington shows negative results occur when we try to do more than one thing at a time. The study indicates that when we work on more than one task simultaneously, we don’t devote enough attention to each task. Quality is sacrificed, despite many people’s claims that multitasking can be done successfully. When we quiet our mind, avoid distractions and focus on one thing at a time, we become much more efficient.

The concept of strategic allocation of attention gained fame from what is now known as the marshmallow experiment, originally carried out more than 40 years ago by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University. It was intended as a study of willpower and the delay of gratification, but researchers later determined it addressed the idea of allocation of attention.

The experiment went like this : 4-year-olds were tempted with a marshmallow, but were told if they waited to eat it until the researcher returned, they could have two instead of one. The children who were most successful at avoiding temptation were those who focused their attention on everything but the marshmallow. They looked out the window, closed their eyes, stared at the ceilingor crawled under a table – anything to avoid seeing and thinking about the appealing sweet. later follow-up studies showed the avoiders were more successful in life than those who focused intently on the one marshmallow – and ate it.

Brain Agility and Change

Just as we know that sitting in a chair all day is bad for our bodies, we know that repeating the same daily routines, habits and thinking patterns is not good for our minds. We need incremental challenges, newness and change to have agile brains that adapt and adjust to new situations as they occur. A Toastmasters meeting provides that opportunity each time we lead or speak, act as a functionary or learn new information.

Now you know – if you didn’t before – that Toastmasters is a great place to acquire improved executive brain function, in addition to leadership acumen and public speaking skills. You can be confident that you’re getting mentally stronger and more agile.

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