Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Brain Fact Friday on “The Key Ingredients of Learning with the Brain in Mind.”

April 2, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, for Brain Fact Friday and episode #119.

Hello and Welcome back! I’m Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with learning the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports and the workplace, for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast for some time, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with putting our brain health first. As I am working closely with neuroscience researcher, Mark Robert Waldman, and learning new ideas that could help improve results for students in our classrooms, or those in the corporate world, I will share with you what I am learning, with the hopes you can implement the new idea in your life, for immediate, improved results.

This week’s brain fact goes right along with the past few episodes where we have been talking about the profound impact that exercise has on our cognitive abilities and mental health. Dr. Daniel Amen, (who we’ve talked a lot about on past episodes) and Dr. John J Ratey would both agree that it’s “simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”[i]

Instead of just one brain fact about the importance of exercise on our brain, I have a few-- to really hit the importance of this brain fact home.

Here are Your Brain Facts for This Week: Did You Know That:

“Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel.” (John J Ratey, MD).  

“Children who exercise regularly are likely to do the same as an adult.” (Spark, Page 12)

“Statistics show that about half of those who start out with a new exercise routine drop out within six months to a year” (Spark, Page 260) probably because they jump in at a high intensity, it’s too much, and they give up.

If you have heard our past 2 episodes, you will know that Dr. Ratey wrote the book Spark on this topic after he saw Naperville’s scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) where they scored #1 in science and #6 in math, in the world, proving that there was something unique that they had discovered with the correlation of exercise and academic achievement.  Naperville provided a powerful case study that “aerobic activity can transform not only the body, but also the mind.” (Spark, Page 19)

Dr. Daniel Amen often talks about the importance of exercise, or walking 5 days a week, like you are late (he would say) for your brain health. He mentions that “blood vessels age, not your brain cells”[ii] and the best way to keep blood vessels healthy so blood flows to your brain, is with moderate exercise.

So for such an important brain fact, that two of the most famous brain experts I know, have focused most of their careers teaching the world about, why isn’t everyone taking advantage of this profound impact of exercise on the brain—for our students in our classrooms and for everyone in the workplace looking for increased productivity.

It All Begins With Understanding How Our Brain Works

Most us have not had the crash course in this topic. Since we know that our brain is involved in everything that we are and everything that we do, it’s important that we understand how it works, especially when it comes to making habits (like implementing a new exercise program) stick.

I was speaking with Victoria Sambursky this week (she is working closely with Dr. Ratey with her company Edominance)[iii] with assessments that unlock personality and behavior, and she was asking me about the best way to break a habit. I shared with her what I cover on episode #35 on “Using Your Brain to Break Bad Habits”[iv] since what we must do to break a habit is the exact opposite of what we must do when forming our new habit, like our new exercise routine that we want to start.

I Shared with Her—Here’s How We Break Habits and Here’s How We Form New Ones

Learning creates a synaptic connection when you are thinking, feeling, or actually doing something new. New neural pathways are formed. I’m sure you have seen the YouTube videos that show how the pathways look in the brain, like a highway.[v] Each time you think that same thought, or do that same action, you strengthen that neural pathway.  Each time you do that new exercise routine, that pathway strengthens. This is how you create a new habit.

Breaking a habit is just the opposite; by avoiding certain thoughts, feelings or actions, your impulses or neural connections become weaker and weaker. Just as knowledge and skills are constructed in our brain with focus, they also diminish (or prune away) without the focused attention. As we learn, our dendrites actually grow as they make new synaptic connections. Learning something new happens when we forge these new connections.

Think About it This Way:

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” and “neurons that are out of sync, fail to link.” If we want to form a new habit, we must practice the new skill over and over again, (wiring and strengthening the pathway) and breaking a habit, means don’t practice the skill—don’t even think about it.

It’s easy to see now that “we are what we think about” or “we create our reality” as we do reinforce our neural pathways with the attention to the habits or goals that we want. We even reinforce what we don’t want when we are thinking” I don’t want that piece of pie” or” I don’t want this project to fail” or “I don’t want to lose that game” and so on. The neural pathways for “I don’t want this or that” are being formed! Our brain only knows what we tell it, so we must be very careful with our thoughts, feelings, and actions, as they will reinforce those neural pathways in our brain.

In Learning Something New: The Key Ingredient is Motivation

Since the brain only hold information it finds to be useful, and discards what is doesn’t need, we have to be sure that when we want to learn something new (for ourselves or for others) that we make the learning relevant, and interesting. The brain will be motivated to learn when it’s exposed to something new, and unfamiliar.

How to Motivate Students to Learn and Move with Brain Health in Mind

I’m always looking for new ideas to help students learn when searching through social media, and this week I saw something that caught my attention.

If you are looking for tools, or ideas on how to motivate your students in the classroom, or kids at home if you are homeschooling, I highly suggest taking a look at the FutureSmart Program[vi] where MassMutual’s Foundation has partnered with the NHL to provide engaging financial education along with movement. The videos are motivating, interesting, and we know they are building the brains of our next generation.

If we can encourage our children and students to move, in any possible way, we will be stimulating their thinking skills needed for academic performance.[vii]  A new study suggests that “when academic classes include physical activity, like squats, or running in place, students do better on tests.”[viii] Take a look at this resource for some new ideas that go beyond just movement. They also have financial education and skills to help prepare our next generation to be future-ready.

What Does the Latest Neuroscience Research Reveal About Exercise and Our Brain?

We know that exercise increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine—important neurotransmitters that monitor the flow of our thoughts and emotions. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, and maybe you know low levels of it is associated with depression, but even many people don’t know the rest.

“They don’t know that toxic levels of stress erode the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain or that chronic depression shrinks certain areas of the brain. And they don’t know that, conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.” John J Ratey

We are just starting to learn about the impact on our brain cells with exercise at the gene level and as technology in neuroscience improves, there will be new ways to measure the changes that are happening in the brain. I just learned from Dr. Andrew Newburg, who is a Professor in the Department of Integrative Medicine and Nutritional Sciences and the Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, from episode #88,[ix] that the changes in brain scan technology make his job very exciting. Like Dr. Ratey mentioned we can see the changes in the brain with exercise, Dr. Newburg says that someone could start a mediation practice today, (or an exercise program) and wonder if they can measure the changes in the brain, and Dr. Newburg would say they can. With time, the frontal lobes of meditators become thicker, and he can see the changes in the brain with Blood/Oxygen Imaging that follows the brain through meditation.  With time, and new technology, it will be very clear that exercise and meditation changes the structure and function of the brain. I’m looking forward to learning what else they discover here.

Once We Know How to Create This Heightened State of Well-Being, Where Else Can We Use It?

In our podcast episode #27 with Friederike Fabritius, we covered the DNA of success or peak performance[x] which is that brain state where we lose the presence of time and are the most productive.

If we can create this heightened state of well-being for our students through exercise, we could also create this environment in our workplaces.

Friederike mentioned the importance of having fun with your work, (or with your workouts) releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, having just enough fear, fun or a challenge to release the neurotransmitter noradrenaline and that with these two factors, focus will occur, and the neurotransmitter acetyl choline will be released to help us to achieve the “flow” that occurs at this heightened level of productivity. These three neurotransmitters must be in place for peak performance to occur and when we hit this level of performance, it’s important that we are able to manage our distractions so that we can stay here for as long as possible for those higher levels of productivity.

Neurotransmitters-Peak_Performance_20196wbsi....

To Review Our Brain Facts, Let’s See if We Can Gain Some New Insight with Our Brain in Mind

“Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel.” (John J Ratey, MD).  

An understanding of our brain helps us to see why. Rigorous activity helps to put the brain in the right environment for learning to take place.

“Children who exercise regularly are likely to do the same as an adult.” (Spark, Page 12)

Since they have built the neural pathways in their brain that they reinforce over and over again. The only way they would not keep the same habit as an adult, is if they stopped exercising. And even with this example, we do have incredible muscle memory, for anyone who has ever had to stop their exercise program for a certain amount of time. Your muscles will remember, and your neural pathways will keep strengthening even with your time away.

“Statistics show that about half of those who start out with a new exercise routine drop out within six months to a year” (Spark, Page 260) probably because they jump in at a high intensity, it’s too much, and they give up.

That’s because most people start off fast and lose motivation when it becomes difficult. Pace yourself, remember that everyone is different, and don’t compare your workout or results to anyone else’s. Find something that you enjoy, and you will be motivated, creating the neurotransmitters you will need to reach those peak performance levels.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these Brain Facts, preparing us for our interview with next week with Paul Zientarski, the PE Teacher from Naperville, who will help us to see exactly what was involved with their PE program to reveal such outstanding results.

See you next week!

REFERENCES:

[i] Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD (January 10, 2008) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D7GQ887/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[ii] Dr. Daniel Amen on the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast “It’s Not Your Brain Cells That Age, it’s Your Blood Vessels” https://brainwarriorswaypodcast.com/its-not-your-brain-cells-that-age-its-your-blood-vessels/

[iii] https://www.endominance.com/company/about-us/

[iv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #35 on “Using Your Brain to Break Bad Habits” with Andrea Samadi https://www.achieveit360.com/how-to-use-your-brain-to-break-bad-habits-in-2020/

[v] Neural Plasticity YouTube Uploaded November 6, 2012  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELpfYCZa87g

[vi] FutureSmart Program https://www.nhl.com/fans/futuresmart

[vii] How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains by Gretchen Reynolds October 8, 2014 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/08/how-exercise-can-boost-the-childs-brain/?_r=0

[viii] Movement During Class Improves Students’ Academic Abilities by Linda Carroll October 21, 2019 https://mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSKBN1X02CZ

[ix] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning EPISODE #88 with Dr. Andrew Newburg on “Demystifying the Human Brain” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/neuroscientist-andrew-newberg-md-on-neurotheology-spect-scans-and-the-aging-brain/

[x] Friederike Fabritius: “Fun, Fear, and Focus: The Neurochemical Recipe for Achieving Peak Performance” | Talks at Google Published Jan.15, 2019  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWi-oCySuFA

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