Your Brain Owner's Manual

A guide to getting the most out of your brain.

Posted Apr 22, 2009

When you know how some things work, you get more out of them, adapt them to new uses, and use them more efficiently. It's more fun to fly a plane, sail a boat, or ride a mountain bike when you use what you know about how these things work and apply that knowledge to the new options you discover through your new knowledge.

I can't promise that you'll be doing brain surgery, treating neurological diseases, or writing books about how the brain learns best after reading a brain owner's manual, but you will learn how to physically change you own brain and help your children or ageing parents do the same. Intelligence is not fixed and what you do, think, hear, read, practice, visualize, taste, and smell all change your brain.

Dr. Judy Willis webpage 

BRAIN OWNER’S MANUAL LINK for parents: Teach your children they can change their brains and intelligence BRAIN OWNER’S MANUAL LINK 

“Dr Judy Willis and Goldie Hawn are Building Better Brains by Bringing Neuroscience into Classrooms”Neurology Now: Publication of the American Academy of Neurology Cover Story 

Dr Judy Willis Edutopia Webinar


Neuroplasticity: Practice Makes Permanent
Neuroplasticity is the most exciting and motivating brain fact. Neuroplasticity refers to physical changes in your brain that result from your thoughts, environment, the emotions you feel, and the things you do. These brain changes are predominantly in the connections between your neurons. The more a network of neurons that holds a memory (information or procedural memory) is activated the stronger it becomes. When you return to a memory or repeat an action enough, new connections form such as dendrites and synapses. The existing connections (axons) that carry information from a neuron to the next even acquire more layers of myelin that act like insulation on an electric wire. This increased myelin means the electrical impulses of the memory travel faster and more efficiently because the electric charge is more protected from leaking out.

When I changed careers from a neurologist to a classroom teacher I started looking at course curriculum and was surprised in the "Decade of the Brain" that very little was taught about the workings of the brain, whether in health class, science class, or even in my own and other graduate schools of education.

Since becoming a teacher, I've been teaching my students, first in elementary and now in secondary school, about their own brains for almost a decade. They can't get enough of it. (I wish it were as easy to get them excited about adding fractions.) It is neuro-LOGICAL to want to know how your body's most powerful tool actually works and how you can change it to amp up the horsepower like Tim the Toolman, on the television show Home Improvement, or set it to a new default state so at rest it is calm and alert instead of frazzled and stressed out. It turns out to be a matter of strengthening the circuits used the most so practice makes permanent!

Change Your Intelligence with Neuroplasticity: Do It Yourself Brain Surgery

Children, as well as many adults, usually think that intelligence is determined at or before birth and no amount of effort will change their academic success. Especially when students believe they are "not smart" and nothing they do can change that, the realization that they can literally change their brains through practice and review strategies is empowering. This is also true of my neurology patients who have lost function due to brain disease or trauma. Through neuroplasticity, their brains construct new neural networks in undamaged parts regions to take over the job of the brain damaged regions.

My students and patients are motivated to take action when they learn about neuroplasticity, and see brain scan evidence of brain changes, and see the results of their own actions when neurons that fire together, wire together. Stimulating a neural circuit holding information makes it stronger. It is so empowering when they learn that practice, and review of information changes their brain and makes memory stronger just like practicing an instrument makes them better players, practice shooting free throws increases their likelihood of success, and exercising muscles makes them bigger and stronger.


A Brain Owner's Manual
When I went to medical school and became a neurologist I didn't know that I'd eventually become a teacher and write about brain research-based teaching strategies. Once I started making connections between my two professions the links became clear. It wasn't until a few years later that I realized that my students could also understand how their brains learn and use that knowledge for self-empowerment.

I ask students if they can change their brains and show fMRI scans of the brains of people before and after they learn to juggle or play an instrument with the increase density of brain cell connections and activity in the places in the brain used to activate the muscles and coordination responses used when juggling.

Their results are wonderful. One ten-year-old boy said, "I didn't know that I could grow my brain. Now I know about growing dendrites when I study and get a good night sleep. Now when I think about watching TV or reviewing my notes I tell myself that I have the power to grow brain cells if I review. I'd still rather watch TV, but I do the review because I want my brain to grow smarter. It is already working and feels really good."

Let Children Make Discover What Makes Their Brains Work Best  
Instead of sending home the beginning of the year letter about having a quiet place to do homework without distractions, etc., I have students experiment for themselves. I assign homework that has them make hypotheses and then experiment with different homework strategies and conditions (with and without music, text messaging, frequent snack breaks, planned exercise breaks, working in bed or at a desk, doing homework early or late, studying all at once or reviewing small sections each day). They collect their own data and compare their findings with those we collect as a class. They construct their own, personalized brain owner's manuals.

A 7th grade girl with ADHD who also suffered from test anxiety said, "I finish my homework faster because I experimented and know I focus better, finish faster, and remember more if I don't send text messages or watch TV. I know I need to schedule a syn-naps break every 20 minutes for 5 minutes to refresh my dopamine. Now I even get the hard problems right because I don't get frustrated the minute I don't understand something. It works at home and now it works on tests."



I Study Because I Can Change My Brain
"I imaging neurons making connections in my brain when I study and I feel like I'm changing my brain when I learn something, understand it, and review it."

"If I use my prefrontal cortex to mentally manipulate what I learn, my dendrites and synapses grow and I will own that learning for a long, long time. I won't have to learn fractions all over again each year."

"I CAN be smarter. If I focus, practice, and use my strengths I can grow the brain connections and cement the memory circuits to be smart. And the more I practice, the stronger my connections become, and the smarter I am. It feels so good to know I have the power to be smart. I also discovered that when I grow those dendrites and synapses, learning seems easier and I don't get lost in class."

Read more about how your (or your child's/parent's) brain learns best on my website: