“Our Brain’s Big 8”
Our brain is what makes each one of us an amazing human being and distinct from each other and all other species on the earth. We all have a brain and each one is unique because of all the different things we do with it, but the underlying structure in every one of us is basically the same.
Our brain is made up of many interconnected structures that ensure we can do everything we do from seeing and running to talking with friends and learning in school. One of the most basic structures in the brain is the neuron. We have over 100 billion of them at birth but they cannot do much for us until they get connected up to each other in meaningful ways. Actually, neurons are not touching one another but they do communicate with each other by passing along electrical impulses and neurochemicals to form long chains of connected neurons called ‘neural pathways’. These are like very long wires that connect our bodies to our brain and allow the two to communicate with each other as well as allowing us to interpret all of the information we receive from the outside world through all of our senses. One chain may be our representation for ‘Mama’ but it would be connected to many different parts of our brain and senses in order to allow us to store this as one ‘item’.
Stimulation from our environment helps create new connections in our brains as well as strengthen existing connections by practicing the same things over and over again (until we get really good at it). As they say, if you don’t use it you will lose it, and we do whether we want to or not! Our brains will do a lot of this by themselves but not without stimulation and care. Your brain is great, but it can be even better if you can do certain things to help it along.
The “Brain’s Big 8” are eight things that we can do every day to ensure our brain is getting what it needs and developing as optimally as it can. Just a little of each a day can really go a long way. See how many of these you are already doing and how you can incorporate a new one into your life. No one is perfect but you can make your brain the best it can be!
1. Drink plenty of water • even low levels of dehydration can change the way we function, our mood, ability to focus, pay attention, feel high in energy and generally keep our systems flushed of toxins. In children this is even more exaggerated so when you see mood swings, be sure to offer them a sip of water before you think the worst!
2. Eat Right • nothing can replace having a healthy, well-balanced eating habit. We know five a day but remember to keep your little ones eating enough omega rich foods as they need this to ensure a good myelin coating (like plastic insulation on electric wire) develops on all those growing neural connections to keep them straight and protected.
3. Get enough good sleep • what constitutes good sleep? Cool, dark, noise and light free, comfy pj’s and sheets, clean mattress and pillow. Children need a certain amount of sleep to allow their brains time to consolidate the day’s learning and to let them grow and recuperate energy for the next day. Children of different ages need different amounts of sleep and it is suggested that children in the first year of life may sleep up to 18 hours per day. As children grow this drops to 10-11 hours until 3-4 years old and afterwards 10 hours seems to do them fine until they become teenagers and that is a discussion for another article.
4. Exercise • Growing children need physical input for their bodies to develop good coordination, muscle tone, joints, bone density and motor control. This will not only ensure children enjoy playtimes, team sports and PE even more but they will also keep a healthy body for a longer portion of their lives. Children aged 1-3 should have exercise for about a half an hour a day but be sure to match this with an equal amount of undirected free play. As children get older, 4+, they can handle a bit more. Remember to allow children to stretch or push themselves to their limits, if we do this we risk tearing delicate and difficult to repair muscle. It has also been demonstrated that regular exercise encourages neuronal connection and more efficient synaptic transmission (sending messages along those lines) so get up and do something while you are thinking about it.
5. Protect your head • There is just no way to emphasise this enough. If you are out in the sun, wear a hat. If you are out in the cold, wear a warm hat. If you a enjoying any sport on wheels or where you will be gaining any speed, wear a protective helmet. If you aren’t sure, wear a hat! Our skull and the protective layers inside the head keep our brain in place and do offer quite a bit of protection from everyday actions but the design is not such that we can abuse what we’ve got. Err on the side of caution and you will probably not go wrong.
6. Make friends • Yes! Make friends and stay connected. This is another wonderful part of our make-up, that we need each other. It has been said that no man is an island and while some men may think they are, we are all social beings. The connectedness develops something in us from birth. It starts with the connections we have with our parents. If this is good, then we are ready to conquer the world, if not, then we may always have some difficulties connecting with others. This will not only make us have less confidence in ourselves but will also keep us from utilising all areas of our brains in optimal ways. So smile and meet someone you know and someone new today.
7. Learn something new every day • Really, as obvious as this seems, we do many things by habit and forget to do a little something extra for ourselves. This can be anything from rocket science to knitting, just do it and you won’t regret it. Children are usually doing this already so take advantage of doing a little homework together (if you have it) and learn or re-learn something you forgot (like algebra!).
8. Play! • Again, YES! Believe it or not, there is a large body of evidence that indicates that children who play with peers, imaginatively and often, develop not only more confidently but also at a faster rate. All of those positive vibes we get from the successful interactions with peers and chances to try out new ideas (and fail with grace) is something our brains really love and thrive on. We are primed to remember things better and apply lateral thinking on a grander scale.
If you weren’t already doing these things, hopefully we’ve given you some food for thought. If you are already doing some or all of these things – hooray for you, go out and celebrate and do some more, or better yet, PLAY!