Health, Happiness, and Your Brain

So last night I went to see Dr. Dan Siegel speak - yes, for my friday night I went all by myself to a lecture on neurobiology - and it was AWESOME.  I am bursting with new ideas for my work, as well as for my personal life.  I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you today, in a (sort of) quick post.

Dr. Siegel is an MD, specializing in psychiatry for children, adolescents and adults.  His work is largely centered around brain development, and more specifically, interpersonal neurobiology - which in an overly simplified nutshell means he studies how experience shapes the brain.  He is a prolific author, and any one of his books are a great resource for anyone. His latest book, Brainstorm, discusses the adolescent brain.  (Highly recommend for teenagers, parents of teenagers, and anyone who works with teenagers.)

Last night, Dr. Siegel spoke at length about Brainstorm, but also about advancements in research on brain development in general. Three major ideas he spoke on last night I felt were concepts that not only inspire me to continue in the direction I am headed professionally, but they are also concepts that I think are easy to take home and apply in your own life, right away.

1) "Being Present" makes us happier and healthier
          Cultivating Mindfulness, where you practice focusing on what is happening in the moment, using your senses to take in information, and calm your thinking about the past/future, has incredible positive effects.  Previously, the positive effects were hard to communicate - the general consensus was 'it just makes you feel better'.  NOW though, we know that practicing mindfulness, slowing down your thinking, using your senses, and focusing on the present moment ACTUALLY CHANGES YOUR BRAIN AND BODY.
          When you are "present", your body releases Telomerase, an enzyme that actually helps to slow the aging process in your body.  When you are "present", you brain actually expresses genes in a more healthy way helping to prevent disease in the body.  When you are "present", inflammation is reduced in the body (inflammation is thought to be one of the most damaging problems in modern health).  Being "present" also results in more brain integration (a whole other topic) which in turn makes us more able to regulate our emotions and control our nervous system.
          Being present is a very good practice, you can start today easily.  A great introductory activity: sit comfortably, close your eyes, place a hand on your chest, and notice your breath for at least 5 breaths.  That's all you have to do, notice your breath, pay attention to what it feels like.  Easy!

2) Being more like an adolescent is just the thing adults need
          Neuroplasticity is the idea that the brain continues to grow and change through the lifespan.  This means the brain can heal itself over and over, but it can also change in a way that's not so great for us.  The brain is like a muscle, it needs activity to keep it strong. Some of the best activities include:
          Active emotionality - what we might call "passion"; care about something, laugh, cry, love
          Social interactions - research consistently shows that we, without a doubt, NEED other people to survive and thrive; talk and listen
          Novelty - trying new things challenges and renews the brain; go learn something new
          Creative expression - challenge the status quo, think outside the box, tap into your creative side

Funnily enough - these are the exact same things that adolescents are drawn to as they transition from childhood to adulthood.  So, simply put, in order to stay young, ACT YOUNG.

3) Trust your Gut
           We have significant clusters of neurons around our hearts and our intestines.  Our bodies receive information in non-verbal, unconscious ways through these clusters that is extremely valuable.  Yes, we are conscious beings with the advantage of critical, analytical thinking - but don't ignore it when you "just know something", your body is communicating to you just as much as your thinking brain!

I hope you feel as inspired by this information as I am - how could you apply this in your everyday, real life?