Living life with positivity significantly bolsters brain connectivity and functioning
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A study of 460 study participants (aged 22-35) from the Human Connectome Project, reported in Nature Neuroscience[1] found a single, stark difference in the way human brains were connected—based on an abundance of positivity or negativity in their lives.

In comparing fMRI brain scans to data collected on approximately 280 behavioral, demographic, and psychometric traits—such as the person's age, whether they have a history of drug use, their socioeconomic status and personality traits, and their performance on various intelligence tests—researchers found that positive traits and conditions vastly improved brain connectivity and functioning.

The functional brain scans (fMRIs) were conducted while the participants’ brains were in “resting state,” when the brain is not focused on a specific task but is either daydreaming or randomly assembling or dissembling thoughts. While it may appear the brain is not actively thinking while in resting state, it’s now known that the brain remains quite alert and prepared to spring into action, as required. Previous research on the resting-state has found there are areas of brain activity that fluctuate in tandem, which is suggestive of functional connections between correlated brain regions. These resting state connective patterns tend to be fairly consistent over time, and there’s some evidence they may be unusual in conditions like dementia and schizophrenia.

The researchers developed an average map of the brain’s resting state across 200 different brain regions, looked for patterns in connectivity, and then performed a canonical correlation analysis to correlate the findings with the behavioral, demographic, and psychometric data.

What They Found

In analyzing the results, the scientists found that brain connectivity patterns could be aligned in a single axis, with one end associated with “positive traits” (such as higher education, stronger physical endurance, above-average performance on memory tests, verbal acuity, higher income levels) and the other associated with “negative traits” (such as poverty, lack of education, smoking, aggressive or anti-social behavior, a family history of alcoholism, poor sleep quality).

Not so surprisingly, they found that the participants on the “positive” side of the axis reflected stronger connectivity between brain networks associated with higher cognitive functions, including memory, language, introspection, and imagination. Because they also had stronger overall connections, their brains were able to communicate more efficiently than the brains of participants at the negative end of the axis. These are the makings of a brain functioning in a superior fashion.

The scientists don’t yet know if the weakened brain connections are the cause—or the effect—of negative social or personality traits (whether behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs, diminished connections). They did find evidence that recent marijuana use (in the previous three weeks) decreased connectivity.

So what does this mean for you?

It means that the more you live the best life possible, in terms of fostering positive attitudes and positive personality traits, and continue bolstering brain capacity and regularly stimulating your brain in positive ways, the stronger your brain’s connectome—internal brain connections and communications—will likely become. You can light up your brain circuits on a daily basis!

What can you do to improve connectivity?

Obviously, making choices in your life that tip your scale towards the positive axis, such as graduating from college, opting for ongoing education and exposure to new experiences, expanding your horizons in all positive aspects of your life, making more money (to afford a healthier lifestyle), taking excellent care of your physical and mental health, staying active and physically strong, eating a balanced, healthy diet, maintaining positive social connections, developing an optimistic outlook on life, and avoiding substances or activities that would damage your physical or mental health. We all also know what those activities involve, and that regular physical exercise (which increases blood flow to your brain) and meditating (one of the best activities you can do for overall brain connectivity and functioning) are essential, so let’s discuss a few specific activities you can add.

Specific Activities that Will Boost Connectivity

  1. Read complex works. Reading books or other materials that require you to think, contemplate, and struggle to understand what’s being said or explained generates new neurons, increases neuronal connections, and speeds up mental processing. Verbal acuity acquired through extensive reading, one of the positive traits identified in the study, also bolsters connectivity. So read extensively, read out of your comfort zone, and study and analyze unfamiliar topics.
  2. Learn to play a musical instrument. Particularly if you’ve never played a musical instrument, the cognitive and physical coordination required to learn offers an amazing workout for your brain. Neuroscientists have also found that the association of motor actions with specific sounds and visual patterns leads to the formation of new neural networks, which boosts overall brain connectivity. It also improves bilateral connectivity, which has been shown to play a role in how well an aging brain continues to function.
  3. Learn to speak a foreign language. This not only forces your brain to think harder than it’s likely had to think for eons, it requires memory expansion and the ability for your brain to shift from thinking to speaking in another language, which is a complex activity that stimulates your brain.
  4. Bolster your memory. Expansive, well-functioning memory was one of the traits on the study’s positive axis because it’s vital to how well your brain handles cognitive tasks. To remember anything, your brain has to communicate across vast distances. Thus, anything you do to expand your memory, such as memorizing poetry, will bolster connectivity in your brain’s prefrontal parietal network, which will also help an aging brain. The use of Mnemonic devices, such as visualization, imagery, spatial navigation, and rhythm and melody, are fun ways to bolster memory.
  5. Take up a hobby that involves new thinking and physical coordination. New activities always stimulate your brain, and if they involve cognition, memory, and physical coordination, they will stimulate both sides of your brain. Quilting, knitting, woodworking, landscape photography, learning to sketch architecture, making art, or ballroom dancing are all activities that would boost connectivity.
  6. Travel. Going new places and getting out of your comfort zone (safely) always stimulates your brain. Learn and use phrases, study the culture, rely on an old-fashioned map or your memory to get around, and walk vigorously. If you can’t travel abroad, travel locally.
  7. Exercise regularly and vigorously for 30 minutes at a time. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign[2] found that exercising vigorously for 30 minutes improved brain plasticity (neural growth), led to an improvement in memory and motor skill coordination, and increased the thickness and density of white matter, the material that connects different regions of the brain, which improves memory and boosts attention span and cognitive efficiency.

Obviously, anything that stimulates brain activity of a complex nature will boost connectivity, and everyone who wants exceptional cognitive skills, now and as they age, should be meditating on a regular basis (one of the best activities for overall connectivity and resting state improvement), and engaging in activities that force their brains to think, concentrate, organize, analyze, remember, contemplate, learn, imagine, and relax. The harder you require your brain to work, the greater connectivity you’ll develop. And whatever you do to boost positivity, do it full throttle, with a sunny outlook, dedication, and passion. 

Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.

References

[1] “A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior”; Nature Neuroscience, September 28, 2015.

[2] Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (Voss et al., 2010).

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