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What makes a person successful?
Having a growth mindset? Being a visionary? Being born into the ‘right’ family?
These may help, but a healthy brain is foundational. Without it, success is going to be far harder to come by. So what is a healthy brain, a successful brain? It’s one that has high blood flow and high activity.
The Amen Clinics perform brain imaging called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which assesses at blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. Since 1991, they have performed over 135,000 brain SPECT scans on patients from 120 countries. The data from SPECT teaches us the four crucial aspects of a person’s brain-based success.
Here are the 4 crucial aspects of ensuring your brain stays strong, and doesn’t ‘dumb down’:
1) Protect your prefrontal cortex (PFC). You’ve heard me talk about this key region of the brain before. It’s behind your forehead and it governs the development of your personality as well as complex behaviors. In humans, it accounts for 30% of the brain’s volume. That’s a lot. Cats weigh in at 3%, dogs at 7%, chimpanzees at 11% of their brain’s volume. The PFC is involved with executive functions, such as strategy, visioning the future, planning, focus, judgment, impulse control, and empathy. It’s your internal CEO. Low PFC activity = bad decision making. That’s why protecting it is crucial. In a study Amen published they found that 91% of traumatic brain injuries involve the PFC.
Preventing brain injuries is easy (phew!):
- Wear a helmet when doing any type of sport where a head injury could occur. Avoid tackle football, hitting soccer balls with your head, any sports that often result in your head being hit.
- Sleep 7+ hours a night. You’ll see in one of my blogs that less than that decreases PFC function, which compromises a host of executive function behaviors from decision making even to thinking clearly.
- Reduce alcohol and marijuana use as they too decrease PFC function.
2) Protect your brain’s pleasure centers. The nucleus accumbens (NA), in both the right and left hemispheres of your brain, are involved in pleasure and motivation. You’ll remember blogs I’ve written about the neurotransmitter dopamine. Well the NA is lit up by the dopamine your brain releases from sex, chocolate, video games, cocaine, stimulants like coffee, high fat and high sugar foods, and fame. Most of us are familiar with the connection between dopamine and addiction, which we’ve been seeing with excessive video gaming for many years now. Not to bum your high, but intense pleasure actually results in substantial drops in your levels of dopamine. When repeated over time (like with heroin addiction, for instance) the NA becomes less responsive, which leads to needing more of these behaviors. That’s how addiction happens, be it to chocolate or methamphetamines.
Protect your pleasure centers by:
- Reduce or limit thrill-seeking activities like racing, excessive video games, pornography, scary movies, drugs that could wear your NA out.
- Increase the behaviors that protect your brain, such as exercise (ideally outdoors), meditation, listening to music you find pleasing, enjoying the company of friends, hobbies, doing things you are passionate about. All these and more help activate— and not overload—your pleasure centers in healthy ways.
3) You can make your brain better. Amen Clinics is well-known for running the first and largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study on active and retired NFL players. Needless to say, they witnessed high levels of brain damage players, many of which had been hit in the head thousands of times. They were thrilled—and surprised—to see that 80% of the players showed improvement in as little as two months on their Memory Rescue program. Since most of us have (thankfully) not been repeatedly hit in the head, there is hope for all of us to have better brains—and better lives.
- Protect your prefrontal cortex by protecting your skull, getting 7+ hours sleep each night, reducing alcohol and marijuana use
- Protect your nucleus accumbens—your pleasure centers—by dialing down addictions (we all have them—even to coffee or chocolate) and over-stimulating forms of entertainment (watch excessive video gaming)
- You can indeed make your brain better by getting help if you need it. Amen has helped pro football players
How does a person become successful? That’s a long answer. For starters, you can stack the deck in your favor by having a healthy brain!