Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Our restless brain

Have you ever tried NOT to think, for example when meditating? Have you noticed how difficult it is? Unless you have a fair bit of meditation practice, your mind will wander off within seconds, if not even split seconds. Apparently our mind hardly ever rests.

Researchers have found a network of neurons in the brain that is highly active when we are trying to rest our brain. It is called default mode network (DMN). In an article on The Psychologist, the research on this network and its implications is described extensively.

The existence and significance of the mentioned network is highly controversial amongst scientists, but what all of them agree upon is that there is a lot of activity in our brain, even when we are not actively doing something. This is true even during states of anaesthesia or early stages of sleep. Depending on what we are doing (or not doing), some parts of the brain are more active than others, but unless we have brain damage, no part is ever completely inactive.

The brain uses 20 per cent of our bodies’ energy consumption, although it only accounts for about two per cent of our body weight. This is not surprising considering the fact that overall activity in the brain seems to be just as high when we are resting as it is when we are actively performing a task. When we are not actively walking, our mind simply seems to go for a walk without moving our limbs.

But why is this so? Why is our brain always active? Our brain works through neural connections, i.e. through communication between the neurons. In order to establish and enforce connections between neurons, there has to be activity or stimulation. Therefore, a certain activity level is required to keep our brain functioning. Thus, activity is vital for our brain.

On the other hand, overstimulation can be as bad for our brain as no stimulation. The neurons in the brain can become resistant to certain neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine. As J. D. Moyer outlines on his blog, reduced sensitivity for hormones and neurotransmitters makes us fat, depressed, bored, numb, anxious, irritable, and so on.

Thus, once more it is all about the happy medium. Our brain needs activity in order to function well, but overstimulation will be harmful for it. And as it is active all the time, it needs to be looked after very well. There are three things it needs: relief (time to wind down and relax), exercise (stimulation), and nutrition (a good diet) – as outlined by Mike Dailey on Your brain is a hard worker, so treat it well!


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