Debunking brain-health myths: How to really boost mental power
“Mindfulness”? “Transcendental meditation”? For Rahul Jandial, a board-certified brain surgeon and neuroscientist, those are just terms for meditative breathing — wellness buzzwords created by people trying to make a buck.
“There is so much nonsense being peddled about the brain,” Jandial tells The Post. “At the most fundamental level, we are being lied to or manipulated. Misguided on the real science.”
That’s why it took the University of Southern California-trained, Los Angeles-based doc 10 years to write his new book, “Neurofitness: A Brain Surgeon’s Secrets to Boost Performance and Unleash Creativity,” in an effort to debunk brain-health myths and sort through marketing hype.
For example, Jandial says the commonly held notion that some people are right-brained and others are left-brained is a myth.
“This is wrong and has been demolished by decades of research,” he says, while blaming a New York Times Magazine article from 1973 for putting this belief into pop culture.
Jandial also says that you can catch up on sleep.
“Despite the long-standing notion, new research suggests that, ultimately, weekends do work as an effective way to catch up on sleep,” he says, referencing a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, from researchers in Sweden who found that “compensatory sleep” can offer “positive effects.”
So what does Jandial think actually can help improve brain health?
There are a number of simple and science-backed changes you can make that will improve your brain’s performance, regardless of how old you are, he says.
“Your fate is not dialed in because of what you have already done,” Jandial says. “You can reverse things. Losing weight, quitting cigarettes — these things will help to lower your risk of cancer and a host of other problems, and it doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in.”
Of course, it’s better to have never smoked, he says, but the changes you make now will have significant health benefits.
“Even in our 60s and 70s, we have seen people perform better on cognitive tests by making simple lifestyle changes,” he adds.
Here, Jandial offers seven tips on how you can boost your brain — for free.
Bring a pen to bed
The minutes before you fall asleep, the hypnagogic state, and the few moments after you wake up, the hypnopompic state, are excellent for creativity, Jandial says. While everything you write down might not be the next million-dollar idea, you’ll be surprised at what you come up with. “It’s the only time of day when you have the creativity of dreams but the awareness of being awake,” he says.
Breathe, but do it deeply
Jandial suggests five straight minutes of slow, deliberate breathing to help calm down before stressful situations. “Meditative breathing, a slow, deliberate breath, can calm the electrical signals in your mind,” he says. “We can apply the same principles deep divers and Buddhist monks use to calm our minds whether we are on the freeway or the subway or even before we go meet our bosses.”
Use your nondominant hand
Try different tasks with your “other” hand (using the mouse at work, opening jars and doors, even a handshake). “It recruits part of your brain that has been idle,” he says. “The part of the brain that controls your nondominant hand that has become stagnant.”
“Don’t press ‘route’ on your maps app, and take a different way home once in a while!” Jandial pleads. By using your “inner GPS,” called “grid cells,” you can improve your brain’s directional skills. “It keeps the navigation position of the hippocampus engaged,” he adds, “which helps keep you sharp.”
Your social-media friends are your real friends
“Social media for older folks is great,” Jandial says. “We know people who are socially engaged have less dementia, and new, yet-to-be-published research is suggesting the brain can’t tell the difference between your social-media friends and your ‘real’ friends.”
Plus, he says, learning any new skill or app, even into your 80s, engages parts of the brain that are becoming dormant from lack of use and aging.
Treat your brain like your heart
By exercising and keeping your cholesterol and blood-pressure levels in check, you are not only helping your heart but also helping your brain. “What you do to prevent a heart attack can also help your brain,” Jandial says. “Exercise opens the cerebral arteries and releases the brain’s own ‘Miracle Grow,’ called BDNF, which helps with attention, focus and complex thought.”
Eat more omega-3s
“What you eat makes a difference,” Jandial says. “We don’t have a pill for Alzheimer’s, but we do have science that shows people whose diets closely resemble the Mediterranean diet have much lower rates of dementia.” The diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, flaxseeds and leafy vegetables, which have been shown to improve the conduction of the electric signals flying around your brain, Jandial adds.
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