The Downside of Neuroplasticity

Think about your best kitchen knife. The more you use it, the duller it gets. Eventually, you have to sharpen it. But if you don’t use it, and you just leave it in a drawer for six months, it’ll be just as sharp as the day you put it away.

Now think about your brain. Your brain and that knife have nothing in common.

I often talk about how great it is that our brains can grow and rewire in response to challenges, much in the same way that muscles grow when you exercise. And don’t get me wrong – this is a good thing. It means we’re not stuck the way we are. We can learn, grow, and improve. We can become more skilled, more intelligent, and more creative. But there is a downside that’s rarely discussed.

I’ve hinted at it before. I did mention in my post about brain muscles that cognitive skills, just like the muscles in your arms and legs, can atrophy with disuse. I have highlighted the “use it or lose it” principle of neuroplasticity. And I’ve warned students that the mastery path is a muddy slope. But it’s time to really get clear about this.

You can improve, yes, but you can also get worse. Think about your physical fitness. What would happen if you just stopped exercising? How fit would you be a year from now? Five years from now? Well, your brain works the same way. If you don’t challenge your brain with mental workouts – learning new things, practicing old skills, and solving difficult puzzles – you won’t just stagnate; you’ll actually lose intelligence.

Trust me, I’ve been there. Between the ages of 23 and 27, that’s exactly what happened to me. I didn’t challenge myself intellectually, and my mind got weaker as a result.

This also applies on the micro-level of learning new skills. You can get better, but you won’t stay better unless you keep at it. On the fixed-mindset – growth-mindset continuum, there are people who are growth-minded enough to know that they have to work hard to get good at something, but then they mistakenly believe they no longer need to practice. And then a week or a month or a year later, that hard-earned skill is gone.

So having a growth mindset, isn’t just about believing that you can improve; it’s also about remembering that you can regress.

This is part of the reason I encourage kids to make good use of summer. And it’s a major reason that I personally practice relentless learning. Unlike a kitchen knife left in a drawer, my brain won’t stay sharp automatically. I have to use it to keep it sharp.

Brain Food

Disclaimer: This is about how food affects the brain. It is not health advice. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements.

Long-time readers will know that brain health is one of my favorite topics. All other things being equal, students with healthier brains will be happier and more academically successful. They’ll find it easier to focus and have better executive function. They’ll have an easier time solving tough problems and remembering what they’re learning, leading to better test scores and higher grades. And we’ve already covered the importance of sleep and physical exercise and play, so it’s time to finally tackle what is perhaps the most important element of brain health: nutrition.

Eating a healthy diet is strongly associated with good general brain health and stronger brain function.1 In other words, it’s not complicated: What’s good for your body is, in general, good for your brain. And while there are countless fad diets and conflicting views about what’s healthy to eat, there are a handful of simple principles that almost everyone agrees on. Pretty much no one offering nutritional advice suggests eating more processed foods, and pretty much everyone agrees that eating more vegetables is a good idea. We’ve already covered all the ways sugar is harmful to the brain, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a diet book or a nutritionist suggesting that we eat more sugar.

Those simple guidelines are a good start, but there are some details worth looking at, so I’ll now take you on a quick tour beyond the basics. I hope you’re hungry for knowledge because you’re about to learn all about brain food.

Protein

Protein from your diet is the source of amino acids, which are the building blocks of cells and, importantly, neurotransmitters – the chemicals used by neurons to communicate with each other.2 However, you do not have to eat meat or chug protein shakes to get the protein you need; there are many different sources of protein to choose from, and, in the western world, it’s not hard to get enough.

Diets very high in animal protein and very low in carbohydrates, such as Atkins or Paleo, are most likely a poor choice for brain health. These diets usually do not include enough complex carbohydrates to keep the brain fueled properly, and there is evidence that such diets impair brain function in mice, suggesting that they might do the same in humans.3 That said, everyone is different, consult your doctor, and run little experiments on yourself to find out what works for you.

Carbohydrates

Unless you’re in ketosis (very hard to do),4 your brain is running on glucose derived from carbohydrates in your diet.1 And since you’re brain doesn’t store glucose for the future, you have to eat regularly to keep it fueled (hence the importance of breakfast).5 The best way to do this is with complex carbohydrates rather than simple ones because, with their fiber, they digest more slowly.5 In other words, whole grains are better than processed grains, fruit is better than juice, and quinoa is better than candy. You can also slow down the digestion of carbohydrates by mixing them with protein and fat.1

Fats

Dietary fat got a bad rap in the latter half of the 20th century, so some people still avoid it like the plague. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, and some people are claiming that dietary fat should make up the bulk of one’s calories. The truth, as usual, is more complicated, so here’s the skinny on fat: We need dietary fat, but not all fats are created equal.

First, eating a diet primarily based on fat – a ketogenic diet – is very difficult to do and should only be attempted under the supervision of a doctor.4 And the other extreme – an extremely low-fat diet – probably isn’t very good either. About 60% of your brain is made of fats,6 and they are an important component of myelin sheaths – the insulation for neural connections that increase signal speed as you develop mastery.7 Furthermore, dietary fats “help carry, absorb, and store the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in your bloodstream.”6

Second, we need to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fats. “If your diet is loaded with bad fats, your brain can only make low-quality nerve cell membranes that don’t function well; if your diet provides the essential, good fats, your brain cells can manufacture higher-quality nerve cell membranes and influence positively your nerve cells’ ability to function at their peak capacity.”6 In particular, trans fats, which have been widely shown to cause harm to the body,8 also cause harm to the brain and hinder brain function in a variety of ways.6 Increased consumption of trans fats is correlated with impaired cognitive function.9 How do you know if something has trans fat? One way is to look for the phrase “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.9 If you see that, steer clear. Saturated fats can also be unhealthy and should be consumed in moderation.10 On the other end of the spectrum, we have unsaturated fats, which are generally healthier,10 and the Omega-3’s:

“Omega-3 fatty acids are great for mental clarity, concentration, and focus. They play an essential role throughout your life and should be at the top of your shopping list in terms of positive value for your brain. … Certain foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are especially good for your brain. These include: Certain cold-water fish (bluefish, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, tuna, and whitefish); Olive oil; Flaxseed oil; Peanut oil; Canola oil. Studies have revealed that Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for maintaining normal cognitive function, have additional advantages in the brain. For example, DHA and EPA, the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, particularly salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and swordfish, are vital for a sharp mind.”6

Omega-3’s, along with Omega-6’s are “essential” fatty acids because our bodies cannot make them on their own, so they must come from the food we eat. We need both, but our bodies and brains prefer a balance, and the modern American diet makes it really easy to eat way too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3.11 Our ancestors likely ate a 1:1 ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, and most Americans now eat 1:20 ratio – 20 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3.11 Improving this ratio is as much about eating more Omega-3-rich foods like salmon and flaxseed as it is about eating less Omega-6-rich foods. Fried foods like chips and French fries are usually high in Omega-6, as are corn-fed beef and corn-fed dairy products (grass-fed is better).11 So reducing these foods is an easy way to improve your ratio.

Fruits and Veggies

Eating a large quantity and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables gives your brain the micronutrients it needs to thrive.5 However, we have a tendency to lump these two types of food into a single category “fruitsandvegetables,” as though they are equally valuable.13 Too many people assume they’re getting all the nutrition they need by just eating fruit and skipping the veggies. You need both, and vegetables, it turns out, are more important because they are more nutrient-dense and have less sugar.13

Vitamins and Minerals

The brain, like the body, needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to thrive. However, studies have shown that, in most cases, taking vitamin supplements is not an effective way to get the micronutrients your body needs.14 Therefore, you’ll want to get your vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat. Here are some excerpts from a Psychology Today article titled “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?”:

“Research studies have shown that people with higher blood levels of the antioxidants vitamins C and E, in particular, have fared better on memory tests. Nuts (hazelnuts and almonds in particular), sunflower seeds, and vegetable oils are rich in Vitamin E. Citrus fruits, guava, papaya, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes and broccoli are all excellent sources of Vitamin C. Blueberries, which are also rich in Vitamin C, heighten brain function and have significant memory-improving properties.”5

“B vitamins also play important roles in cognitive function. An amino acid, known as homocysteine, is associated with clogged arteries, which result in decreased brain blood flow, causing impairment of mental functions. B vitamins, such as folate, Vitamin B6 and B12, seem to assist in lowering homocysteine levels, while B vitamin deficiencies have been linked to high levels of homocysteine. B12 is essential for an astute mind, as a B12 deficiency is associated with cognitive problems such as memory lapses. B6 also bolsters memory. Folate can be found most abundantly in leafy green vegetables, especially spinach, broccoli, beans, orange juice, and avocados. B12 can only naturally be found in animal products, particularly salmon, beef, shrimp, yogurt, milk and cheese, but it is often fortified in foods such as soy milk and cereals. B6 is found primarily in animal sources like poultry, pork, beef and seafood, and in smaller amounts in legumes, such as black beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.”5

“Vitamin D receptors are found throughout the brain and especially in the hippocampus, and low Vitamin D levels have been linked to poor memory and cognitive function. Vitamin D also aids in the growth of new neurons and neurotransmitter synthesis.”5 Remember that Vitamin D is fat soluble, which means that you cannot absorb it if you don’t eat it with fat. Hence, if you’re “getting” your Vitamin D from fat-free milk or fat-free yogurt, you may not be getting it at all. You don’t, however, need to get all your Vitamin D from food: Your body will produce Vitamin D naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight.

“Superfoods”

You’ve probably heard about so-called “superfoods” that are especially beneficial for your body or brain. This is a marketing term that simply refers to foods – many already mentioned here – that are nutrient-dense or otherwise very healthy to eat. You don’t need to worry about whether or not the foods you’re eating are “super,” though. You just need to eat well. Are chia seeds, kale, and blueberries healthy? Yeah. Do they have magic powers? Can they make up for an otherwise unhealthy diet? No.

Water

Water matters too because dehydrated brains don’t function as well.15 However, you probably don’t need to drink eight glasses of water a day. That’s a myth. Just drink water when you’re thirsty.16

Can You Eat Your Way to an A?

Eating well is vitally important for brain health and, in turn, academic success, but let’s not see it as a cure-all. This is one of several fundamentals that help prepare a student’s brain for school. And preparation alone does not guarantee success. You still have to play the game of school, engage the content with curiosity, and learn it deeply by doing more than what is asked of you. And you can still get A’s without eating well, but you’d be making school harder than it needs to be.

Your brain is your #1 asset. Feed it well.

1 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

2 Lawson, Willow. “Brain Power: Why Proteins Are Smart.” Psychology Today. January 3, 2003.

3 Macrae, Fiona. “High protein diets may shrink brain and boost risk of Alzheimer’s.” Daily Mail. October 21, 2009.

4 Ferriss, Tim. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

5 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

6 Reynolds, Susan, and Teresa Aubele. “The Skinny on Brain Fats.” Psychology Today. September 22, 2011.

7 Morell, Pierre, and Richard H Quarles. “The Myelin Sheath.” Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th edition. Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, et al., editors. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999.

8 Willet, Walter. “The Scientific Case for Banning Trans Fats.” December 13, 2013.

9 Chan, Amanda L. “Good And Bad Fats Affect Brain Health, Too.” The Huffington Post. May 19, 2012.

10 “The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between.” Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. August 13, 2018.

11 Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009.

12 Simopoulos, Artemis P. “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity.” Nutrients. March 2nd, 2016.

13 Asprey, Dave. The Bulletproof Diet: Lose up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life. Rodale Books, 2014.

14 St. Michael’s Hospital. “Most popular vitamin and mineral supplements provide no health benefit, study finds.” ScienceDaily. May 28, 2018.

15 “Brain Food: Superfoods To Improve Your Cognitive Function.” The Huffington Post. September 19, 2012.

16 “Myth of 8 Glasses of Water a Day.” University of Michigan Health System.

Focus is a Muscle

The ability to focus is of paramount importance for success in school and in life.

Without the ability to pay attention when you need to, you’ll struggle to learn in class, study at home, listen during conversations, complete job duties, and safely perform tasks like chopping vegetables and driving a car. Focus is also a key component of executive function, and it is deeply interwoven with willpower.

But what is focus, really? And what causes people to have deficiencies in their ability to pay attention?

One answer is that focus is purely a choice. In this view, if you’re not paying attention, it’s because you’ve chosen not to focus, or you’ve failed to choose to focus. This leads to judgmental statements like, “Just pay attention!” There is some truth to this view – choice matters – but there’s much more to focus than just deciding to pay attention.

One obvious complication is your environment. It’s more difficult to focus in a distracting environment than in a calm, distraction-free environment. This is one of the many reasons why creating a home study space is essential. Technology can be a major distraction, which is why we advocate for real, paper textbooks. It’s also why I do most of my work in airplane mode. But, while environmental factors matter, they’re not the whole story either.

Another popular notion is that your ability to focus is determined by your genes. Some people are genetically predisposed to be good at paying attention, while others are not. Although genes do play a role, this idea tends to lead people to mistakenly believe that focus is an ability that you either have or do not have. Having it means you are normal, while not having it means you possess a disorder: ADD or ADHD.

This sort of black-and-white thinking is absurd. The capacity to maintain focused attention isn’t an all-or-nothing trait; it’s a spectrum. We have drawn an arbitrary line in the sand somewhere along this spectrum and labeled everyone on the wrong side of that line “disordered.”

Now, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as ADHD, but I am saying that labeling it as a fixed trait can do a great deal of harm. Imagine being a child who is told that he has a disorder that makes it hard for him to pay attention. What will you do the next time you’re asked to focus on something, and you’re finding it challenging? Will you think, This is hard, but I can do it, and push yourself to stay focused? Or will you shrug your shoulders and think, I’m just no good at focusing, and give up? I suspect the latter is much more common, and I suspect that labeling students as permanently attention disordered is frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative approach would be to view focus through the lens of a growth mindset. The brain is capable of dynamic changes throughout our lives, growing and rewiring in response to our choices. All cognitive abilities can be improved with practice and enhanced with strategy.1 So no one is ever stuck at whatever place they happen to be on the spectrum of focusing ability. Anyone can improve their ability to focus. Anyone can strengthen their focus muscle.

If we view the brain as a bunch of muscles, then the long-term approach to improving focus becomes a matter of brain training. Every class you attend, every reading assignment, every math problem, and every study session are not only opportunities to learn, they are opportunities to train your ability to focus. You can engage in deliberate focus training through activities such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, and you can also move through life looking for chances to give your focus muscle a little workout. Even just making a greater effort to pay attention when you’re in a conversation is a little dose of focus training. And every little bit counts.

And this isn’t just a nice metaphor – there’s real neuroscience to back up this view. A study published in the journal Biological Psychology in 2013 noted that “Mental training techniques rooted in meditation are associated with attention improvement, increased activation and cortical thickening of attention/executive-related brain areas.”2 Meanwhile, ADHD is linked to “hypo-activation and cortical thinning of similar networks.”2 Thus, using meditation or other forms of mindfulness training could result in reduced ADHD symptoms through the strengthening of relevant brain areas. “Meditation is a cognitive control exercise that enhances ‘the ability to self-regulate your internal distractions,’ said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.”3

Seeing focus as a muscle helps us shift our approach from fixing to growing. If we think of ADHD as a permanent, intractable disorder, then we’ll think our only option is to “fix” it with medication. I’m not saying that medication should never be part of the program, but I am saying that medication should never be the only tool we use. Sadly, it is often used instead of, rather than in addition to, brain training.

And when this happens, we might be impeding the natural development of focusing ability, creating dependence. I’ll explain what I mean using a physiological example. Let’s say I’ve had a wrist injury that has left me with a weakened wrist. I need to continue using my wrist to perform the tasks of my day-to-day life, so I have to wear a brace. But I also need to perform exercises to strengthen my wrist because that’s the path to recovery in the long run. If I don’t work to build up the strength of my wrist, I’ll be forever dependent on the brace, and I’ll never be as effective as I could be.

Luckily, this sort of dependence seems to be uncommon. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that elementary-aged children diagnosed with ADHD typically show marked improvement three years after their diagnosis, regardless of whether they’ve been put on medication or not.4 Since medication seems to offer no long-term cognitive benefits, and because it comes with unwanted side-effects, researchers are now turning their attention to alternatives that are focused on brain training, such as meditation.

A study published in Clinical Neurophysiology on adults with ADHD showed that the combination of cognitive therapy and mindfulness training could be just as beneficial as taking medication,5 but because they were learning skills and gaining cognitive strength, I suspect that the benefits will be longer lasting. The benefits of taking medication tend to be short-lived,4 while the benefits of meditation continue accumulating over time.6 So we have to ask ourselves, what’s more important: a short-term boost or long-term strength?

But wait, let’s return to those kids who all improved their ADHD symptoms, both with and without medication. Why did they improve? Well, that was outside that study’s scope, but I suspect it’s simply because they grew up a little, both emotionally and neurologically. They were forced, through schoolwork and other activities, to exercise their ability to focus.

Training this focus muscle is, in fact, one of the unspoken purposes of school. It’s also one of the unnamed things that the SAT is testing. The SAT is a long, boring exam, and it is deliberately so. When a student complains that the readings on the SAT are uninteresting, I explain that this is because they’re testing students’ ability to stay focused in the face of boredom. The student then often asks why the test is designed this way with a tone that says, “Why are they torturing us?!”

The answer is that, no matter what career you choose, both the schooling required to enter that career and the career itself will inevitably demand that you perform boring, tedious work with steady focus. For example, let’s say you’re passionate about medicine and plan to become a doctor. Fantastic. Medicine is a challenging, dynamic, and meaningful career. But you’re still going to have to take organic chemistry and anatomy, and so you’ll have to do a tremendous amount of boring memorization. And once you become a doctor, you’ll have to complete tedious chart notes about each patient.

Up until now, I’ve been talking about this “focus is a muscle” principle in terms of why it is good. But here’s the bad news, which is really just a cold splash of reality: Just as you can’t get your body in shape overnight, you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly be really good at focusing. The ability to focus is a difficult skill that requires regular exercise in order to be developed.

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. … It’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit, like flossing – something that you know how to do and know is good for you but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mindset is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your mental muscle.” –Cal Newport7

So yeah, patience is necessary. To make significant improvements over time, you’ll need to keep your eyes on the process and have faith that deliberately engaging in focusing exercises on a regular basis will make you stronger. A healthy dose of realistic optimism is necessary here. Improvement is possible, but progress will be slow and gradual.

It’s worthwhile to invest the time and energy because, no matter what you choose to do with your life, focus matters. And no matter how weak or strong your ability to focus is today, you can strengthen it because focus is a muscle.

1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

2 Grant, Joshua, et. al. “Cortical thickness, mental absorption and meditative practice: Possible implications for disorders of attention.” Biological Psychology. Volume 92, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 275-281.

3 Goleman, Daniel. “Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits.” The New York Times. May 12, 2014.

4 Jensen, Peter S., M.D., et. al. “3-Year Follow-up of the NIMH MTA Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Volume 46, Issue 8, August 2007, Pages 989-1002.

5 Schoenberg, Poppy L.A., et. al. “Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on neurophysiological correlates of performance monitoring in adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Clinical Neurophysiology. Volume 125, Issue 7, July 2014, Pages 1407-1416.

6 Lazar, Sara W., et al. “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” NIH Public Access. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. February 6, 2006.

7 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.