Monthly Archives: March 2008

Curiosity of Mental Energy

Everyone experiences moments when we feel sluggish or perhaps hyperactive. Sometimes our brains feel like they are stuck in mud while other times we can solve almost any problem we confront. Interestingly, these cycles of mental energy or arousal may occur within a 24 hour time period, our circadian rhythm.

Some of us have our creative time or the time we perform best mentally in the morning hours. Others have their greatness expressed in the evening hours. There is no right versus wrong, simply different. Some people who work after midnight or in a mine shaft that has no natural light can experience a different circadian rhythm than those who work during the day and have exposure to natural sunlight. Sleep disorders, depression, and cognitive problems can result from altered sleep wake cycles.

There is no clear explanation for when arousal is highest in some and lowest for others. Some factors that can enhance or reduce mental energy or arousal include the following:

  • Amount of daily exercise
  • Amount of sleep in 24 hours
  • Types of foods consumed
  • Water intake and hydration
  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Prescribed Medication and substance abuse
  • Mental challenge during the day

One of the best methods to increase mental energy is to increase blood flow to the brain through movement. This can include a brisk walk, aerobics, brain games, swimming, and even a dance. Fresh air can also rejuvenate a sluggish brain and increase water intake to remain hydrated during the day. Sugar can put the brain to sleep in some cases or make it feel like a good nap is needed. Caffeine can provide a quick boost, but may result in a type of mental crash later in the day.

It is a good idea to first identify what periods of the day your brain is alert and productive and when it is sluggish. Try to identify what factors might be causing the onset of sluggishness and consider the brain tips suggested above.

A mentally alert brain is critical to health and to productivity.

What Exactly is a Stroke?

Stroke is a clinical term that describes cell death in the brain. Stroke is a permanent and can result in significant functional impairment and even death. There are two types of strokes. The first is the most common and is referred to as ischemia. Nearly 80% of all strokes are ischemic and involves a blockage of blood flow that results in cell death. The other 20% of strokes are hemorrhagic that involves a bleeding outward from a weakened artery wall. As the blood gathers increased pressure can be placed on the surrounding brain tissue causing additional damage to the brain.

Both types of stroke are dangerous and can result in deficits of language, attention, information processing speed, and motor skills. Risk factors for stroke include advanced age, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and poor diet. Typical preventative measures for stroke include the same protocol as used for the healthy heart. We have learned relatively recently how important blood flow to the brain is, particularly when we recognize that the brain commands 25% of the blood from every heart beat.

Creativity and the Brain

The human brain left to its own would likely create in unthinkable ways. Creativity most likely occurs when structure is limited and free flow of cognition can take place. It is suggested that Einstein’s most creative moments occurred when he took his morning walk or bike ride.

Recent research suggests creativity relates to advanced age. It is important to note that older brains tend to lose a disproportionate number of brain cells in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that helps to impose structure in our lives and perhaps on our thinking. With less capacity to impose structure, creativity may be unleashed.

Given this, it is interesting to consider how much brain expression our world suppresses. Our classrooms impose enormous structure as do our jobs. We are highly routinized animals and probably rely as much on our subcortical brain regions as we do our cortex. We tend to refrain from new experiences or pathways to a similar endpoint. We also do not free our brains from structure long enough to express creativity.

It is important to provide your brain with some time to simply think or exist without any task to be completed. Such time may help the brain express itself in ways it otherwise cannot. One prescription is to give your self 30 minutes a day of quiet or idle time. Einstein used such time to take a walk or ride a bike. By releasing structural restraints on your brain, you may create an entire new reality and future for your self and for others.

Chronic Stress and the Brain

It seems everyone knows what “stress” is and what it feels like. Most of us agree that stress typically does not feel very good and places the mind and body in a precarious position. We know many things can cause stress and some of the reaction of being stressed is subjective, based on a personal perception. These examples might include being in traffic, waiting for an elevator, waiting for the doctor, or having to deal with perceived incompetence. However, more life threatening stressors such as near death from a motor vehicle accident, child abuse, sexual trauma, war, etc. can impose a more chronic form of stress.

The brain reacts to stress by having a survival type instinct in which you will either run or fight the stressor. Some research indicates this is primarily a male response and that women may be better at actually working with the stressing agent to ameliorate the stress. Perhaps the latter is a more adaptive response to stress and might relate to the fact that women live longer than men.

If the stressor does not go away the effects of the stress can become chronic and result in a clinical condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic anxiety. Both of these conditions seem to have a hormonal component underlying them in which an explosion of hormones are released in the body—“stress response” and if not turned off can potentially do damage to the body and brain. Some of the hormones such as cortisol and glucocorticoids can actually cause potential damage to the brain.

Animal and some human studies indicate that chronic stress with the persistent hormonal issue described above affects the hippocampus, structurally and functionally. The hippocampus is critical to memory and new learning and it is not coincidental that persons with chronic anxiety or PTSD have memory problems.

Most people understand that it is important to first identify what causes their stress and then to try and develop more adaptive coping strategies to manage the stress in their lives. However, most people probably do not understand that such stress, if not managed can become chronic and may be a negative influence on brain function.

It is a good idea to take some time and list two or three things that represent your chief stressors in life. Once you do this identify how you are presently coping or managing these stressors and try to determine how you might better reduce the negative effects of these stressors on your body and life.