Cultivating the Mind for Positive Health
Exercising the Body-Mind
We are encouraged to exercise our physical body in order to maintain good health: To "use it or lose it". The current focus of this good sense is on our "body" and the heart. The same maxim, however, applies to the brain, the mind and the memory. If regular exercise of the body-heart reduces the incidence of physical ailments and heart disease, then logic dictates that regular brain exercise will help prevent failing minds and faltering memory. Every day of the week in every town across the country we can enrol on a body fitness programme but where are the "Brain Train" classes? There is "Adult Education" but, unfortunately, it continues to take the "reductionist" approach to learning that bored us to tears in school. As a consequence, however, we often take the same approach when it comes to our own personal development, and we also tend to continue training in areas in which we already feel reasonably competent. At college therefore we "exercise" the parts of our mind that are already well developed. What we need for brain fitness is a formula that will reach the parts that lie idle. New Age and Complementary Health workshops are a better place to start because they fire up the intuitive side of our nature. But spending some time first learning how to learn, is in my view the best possible investment for your future personal "brain fitness" programme.
Learning how to learn
In order to continually and effectively improve our minds we need first to become "mentally literate" a term first coined by Tony Buzan (and unfortunately not a skill taught in most schools). This is a literacy through which you come to understand your brain, and acquire the tools and techniques for learning. Anyone can become mentally literate, and if you enjoy reading, then the books Use Your Head by Tony Buzan and Accelerated Learning by Colin Rose are excellent starting points. If you prefer to learn by doing, there are many excellent workshops available on memory and learning. Some basic concepts which will help you on your journey are Learning Cycles, Learning Styles, Mind (Brain) States, Learning Rhythms, Multiple Intelligences, Competence Model, Brain Architecture, and Mind Mapping®.
The Learning Cycle
There are many "learning" cycles in the literature (such as the Kolb Cycle) and though all of them have their uses, many of them are unnecessarily complex. The importance about knowledge of a simple learning cycle is that it shows "learning" as a set of processes and that if a part of the process is missed out then true learning does not occur. The simplest, most effective, learning cycle that I have come across is that devised by Phil Race. This shows learning as requiring four processes:- Want, Do, Feedback, and "Digestion". This cycle is a process that the brain uses naturally (before we go to school and have a teacher) to achieve milestones like walking and talking. However, for some reason our schooling seems to drive into us a two stage cycle which is more like "Want-Do". The saying "If at first you don't succeed try, try, try again" does not hold true for the Want-Do fanatic. The "Want-Do" cycle is akin to the "bashing the head against a brick wall" approach (which I see so many people attempting regularly at work and play. It is a "No-Learn" cycle). Without monitoring the "feedback" from the "doing" and without "digesting" the meaning, implication, and lesson, from the "feedback" there can be no true learning, no brain stimulation and no new neuronal connections. In fact, "learning" based on Want-Do (i.e. no-learn) is what leads us into the "can't do" mentality and we build around ourselves a "box" of life constraints instead of one of never-ending possibilities.
Learning Styles and Preferences
We can acquire new information through visual (sight) auditory (sound) and kinesthetic inputs. (V.A.K) Kinesthetic input can be thought of as a "catch-all" for the non-sight and non-sound modes such as touch, taste, feeling and movement. Depending on a mix of genetic predisposition and early learning opportunity we may develop a preference for a particular learning style and people who feel that they only learn by "doing" are likely to have a preference for "kinesthetic" techniques, and would not learn easily with traditional school "chalk and talk" teaching methods. However, the literature tends to extrapolate from this the need for teachers to teach to the learning preference of each pupil and for the learner themselves to develop and emphasise their preferred style. Though this makes sense for enhancing learning in the short term, in the longer term in order to develop life-long learning and brain fitness, we should use this information about learning styles to ensure that we continually improve all our visual, auditory and kinesthetic skills. We need our teachers to take an holistic approach and always use a mix of V. A. K. sensations to make each lesson more memorable. Seeing, hearing and feeling simultaneously is the natural way to enhance memory and learning.
Brain Wave States
A simple understanding of the four brain wave states can be very helpful to devise strategies to make learning easier and "brain exercise" more effective. The highest frequency – " beta" wave – is maybe appropriate for fleeing from a band of hungry sabre-toothed tigers but is most often indicative of an "overload" and "confusional" state. Not of any use for learning, but seemingly present in great excess in the average classroom and workplace. The "alpha" wave is of lower frequency and represents a state of relaxed but alert awareness. It is an excellent frequency for learning. In this state your peripheral awareness is acute but soft and unfocussed, and the mind-body is in a more energy-efficient mode than with beta (utilising less overall energy), but learning is enhanced because it is concentrated around a single activity. If the surrounding environment is high in distracters or stessors it will be difficult to achieve enhanced alpha but equally the more adept you become at holding this state, the easier it is to shut out distraction. (This is also where the importance of the "want' in the learning cycle comes in – if you don't particularly want to do something in the first place it becomes very easy to be distracted.)
Techniques such as looking at a mandala and listening to baroque music enhance alpha wave production. The third state "theta" is a lower frequency still, and at this frequency the mind-body is focussed inwards and sensitivity to the outside world is temporarily lowered. We observe this state when people "day-dream" or are creating or recreating mental pictures in the mind such as when doing visualisation. The mind likes to work with pictures and theta state is therefore good for memory and recall, and whenever we are seeking to link new ideas to our existing mental database. Einstein attributed much of his "genius" to daydreaming and he insisted that his pupils spent time each day on this activity. (Note that the theta state is highly appropriate for the "digestion" stage of the learning cycle.)
Finally the lowest brain frequency is the "delta" wave state (equivalent to sleep) which also has importance in learning but will not be covered here.
From a simple understanding of our brain wave states we can see that mind-state is an important consideration for both teacher and learner. It is a waste of effort "exercising" the brain until we have quietened and focussed our minds, and setting aside time for mental imagery and imagination will give our little grey cells a good workout.
The Learning Rhythms
I will just touch here on "learning rhythms". Those who want to know more should refer to Tony Buzan's book "Use your Head". When you receive information from a typical spoken lecture, do you know how much and what information you recall during the lecture, at the end of the lecture and days or weeks afterwards? Each of these stages has typical, predictable "decay" curves for recall. Knowledge of these learning rhythms can enable both teacher and pupil to optimise the learning and review process and prevent "learning decay".
This has many implications. The corporate world for example could optimise its training budgets much more effectively if trainers and employees utilised this knowledge, and students studying could spend less time on revision yet achieve far better results in their examinations.
The pioneering work of Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence have hopefully finally debunked the idea that we all possess a single innate intelligence or "IQ". Gardner emphasises that we all have at least seven intelligences and each can be improved with practise. The "intelligences" are Logical/Mathematical, Linguistic, Physical /Kinesthetic, Musical, Visual/Spatial, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal. The Logical/Mathematical relates to our ability to reason and calculate and is most developed in scientists, mathematicians, lawyers and judges. The Linguistic intelligence is our ability to read, write and communicate with words. Such intelligence is highly developed in authors, poets, orators, (some) politicians and "academics". Traditionally most so-called intelligence tests have focused on these two "talents", and most education systems around the world concentrate on these two abilities. Howard Gardner says that this has given us a warped and limited view of our learning potential. In particular we see little emphasis both at home and at school on the development of our intrapersonal and interpersonal abilities both of which are strongly interweaved with our emotional side. Our Intrapersonal intelligence is the introspective ability to know one's self and our Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to relate with others. Probably we developed these abilities in past times at home within the learning set of the extended family.
Today we have several generations of adults with low ability in these important skills which is a major problem. If parents, teachers and politicians worked on these intelligences within themselves, then these skills would diffuse to our children. Fortunately those of us interested in positive health (and consequently reading this magazine) are learning the wisdom of the ancient ones and the ancient traditions of the East and North America. We are thus beginning to understand how our emotions connect to the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones, and most importantly we are learning that to change something outside of ourselves we first need to change something inside ourselves. When the whole planet has learnt this, then the world will be a better place. When we have this congruence in our society then we will find it also in our children. The more that we all seek to develop these intelligences, the more that we will move away from a "blame" culture to one where we all accept responsibility for what happens through our interconnectedness with the outside world. The world is merely our reflection.
Each "intelligence" can be thought of as a separate "microprocessor" inside our head. Each intelligence improves with use. The phenomenon of true "genius" appears to come when many of these intelligences are well developed and used simultaneously. Each intelligence is subject to "use it or lose it". Part of the accelerated learning model is that information in a study session is presented in ways which address as many of the "intelligences" as possible. This not only makes retention and recall of information easier (there are many more "hooks" from which to get the information back out again) but it is continuously improving each intelligence skill.
The Competence Cycle
Phil Race points out that before we try a task we are "unconsciously uncompetent", a state where we may not be aware that such a task exists or if we are aware, we have never rehearsed it. The task is outside of our boundary of possibilities. (Many of us are reluctant to try new things but we should remember that "brain fitness" depends on performing such activities.)
When we "have a go" at something new, we step to the edge of our existing frame of reference and we take risks (for example of looking foolish) and we may "fail". We then become "consciously uncompetent". We are now aware that we do not yet have the ability to achieve the task. A baby for example is at this stage when it tries to take its first step and falls down. However, once baby takes the first few successful steps he has reached the "conscious competence" stage. Now over the next few weeks provided that baby consciously concentrates solely on the task, he can walk without failing. If, however, he gets a distraction which requires some attention he probably falls down. Gradually though the walking becomes automatic and distraction does not result in toppling over or sitting down. The baby is now "unconsciously competent". The lesson from the competence model is that anything that we do with perseverance, and continually receive and digest feedback to correct deficiencies, we will become excellent at (unconscious competence). But remember that the unconscious competence state requires little thought, so unless you are continually challenging yourself to learn new competences your thinking cap gets little exercise.
The Brain Cell Within the brain is at least 10 billion brain cells or neurons. Each of these neurons can make as many as 20,000 connections. A truly vast network of cosmic proportion. It is not the number of neurons that determines the power of our intelligences, it is the number of connections between the neurons which determines this. It is good to be "dense" (the more connected are the neurons the heavier is the brain). The memory capacity from this network is infinite and over a lifetime the average person uses up less than one tenth of one per cent of potential. Seemingly, the amount of potential capacity utilised over a life time is use-dependent.
The Triune Brain We have three-brains-in-one which represents an evolutionary inheritance. There is the "reptilian brain" which stems from the spinal column. This controls our basic instincts – breathing, heart rate, sense of territory. Then there is our "mammalian brain" or limbic system. This controls our emotions, sexuality, sleep and immune system, and plays an important role in long term memory. Finally there is our Neo-cortex or "thinking cap". This comprises a two-sided cerebrum the so-called left and right brain linked by a massive bundle of nerves, the corpus callosum, comprising some 200 million fibres. The left side of the brain specialises in logical, linear, analytical processes and the right side specialises in intuitive, holistic, imaginative processes (gross simplification). The real power of the brain to tackle a task is unleashed when left and right brains work together simultaneously and synergistically.
The Triune Brain model helps us to appreciate both possibilities and constraints. First, the brain has constraints on how much information can be processed simultaneously, and when the Body-Mind is on full alert (e.g. flight, fright or fight) the functioning of the lower (reptilian) brain and mid (mammalian) brain take precedence. This means that as the amount of "stress" in the moment increases so more of our thinking is suppressed. This happens probably because, in evolutionary terms, it was more important when being chased by the dinosaur to operate on "automatic response" mode, than to spend time thinking about it. Of course, today, the stress generated by a situation is not indicative of an immediate threat to life and limb and it is better often to think a solution (using alpha and theta states) than to fire-fight it. We can, in fact, learn to stay calm in volatile or distressing circumstances in which case we retain full ability to use the complete range of logical or intuitive power.
The second point from the model is that the functions of the mid-brain appear to be closely interconnected. We know that our emotions have a profound effect on memory and there is increasing evidence to suggest that our immune system also interacts with our emotions and our long-term memory. This has important implications for our understanding about Body-Mind and Health.
The Age-Brain Heresy
At school we learnt about the "what" of learning and not the "how". We thus go on to live out our lives without much knowledge of how we learn, how our mind or memory operates and therefore with little idea about how to keep the brain holistically active and healthy. The evidence suggests that if we have this know-how, and use it, our brain does not deteriorate with age and our mental abilities can continually improve. A Body-Mind fitness programme is therefore a programme for life, living and longevity.
The 90 year old who is studying for a GCSE is continually stretching the Mind-Body to new limits, and has reached a ripe age through an intuitive understanding of what to do to stay healthy. Living is learning. Learning is about continuous improvement and internal changes. Continuous Life-long learning keeps the brain active with each and every neuron striving to make new permanent connections. Learning is thus the exercise of the mind. Doing (what you have always done) is Body-Mind maintenance, not improvement. Simply doing things does not require much interplay between your neo-cortex and your memory database.
Mind Mapping® for Health
The traditional way that we write down ideas and thoughts (in a linear and logical fashion) is not a very effective way to make new and interesting connections. Lists of linear words does not engage the intuitive, right side of our brain. A much more effective way to do this is to use a technique called Mind Mapping®. Regular use of such visual, organic, branching techniques is brain-friendly, and encourages learning through visualisation and realisation of the interconnectedness of our internal and external worlds. In particular, Mind Mapping® can engage both sides of the brain – simultaneously. In the accompanying article Ian Woodrow describes the use of Mind Mapping® as a tool for therapists, and in a follow-up article I will talk about the concept of "Mind-Mapping® for Health" in much greater detail.
Being mentally literate and learning the skills of learning how to learn will help you manage your time, your life and your mind. One of the greatest benefits is that learning becomes so effortless that continuous change becomes a joyful challenge and not a stressful pain. Most of us are being dragged along by change hardly able to keep up and constantly feeling that we have no control. This is the recipe for dis-ease. Mental literacy can set you free, allow you to tap into the vast dormant potential within and to learn faster than the change in your outer world reality. Learning faster than change fosters a pro-active rather than a re-active lifestyle. This is the recipe for health.
Finally, Mental Literacy allows you to make informed choices about what you need to do to keep your brain in tip top shape.
Tony Buzan Use Your Head BBC Publications
Colin Rose Accelerated Learning
Howard Gardner Frames of Mind Fontana Press
Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Bloomsbury Publishing
Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene The Age Heresy Ebury Press
Phil Race Never Mind the Teaching Feel the Learning SEDA Paper 80
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