In this article: Simple activities with powerful results for the health of your mind.
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has held the following slogan since 1972- “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
It’s a fitting slogan for an American philanthropic organization that funds scholarships for black students and general scholarship funds for 37 private historically black colleges and universities.
This statement, while used as the slogan for UNCF, has much applicability outside the realms of the organization. There have been a host of studies on the brain that show how it declines when it’s not utilized, or when it is not utilized well.
There are numerous activities that can be done to keep the mind healthy, but there are certain rituals that can go a very long way in preserving and enhancing the health of the mind. Merriam- Webster defines a ritual as an established or prescribed procedure or system.
Thus, a mind health ritual is essentially an established procedure implemented and repeated regularly with the ultimate goal or outcome being improved mind health. This report outlines several of those rituals and provides supporting evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the outlined rituals.
Rituals For A Healthy Mind
There are a host of benefits that consistent physical exercise can provide for the mind. An instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Scott McGinnis, notes that exercise is linked to improved memory and enhanced thinking skills. The findings of multiple studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking, and memory are larger in volume in those individuals who exercise versus those who do not.
The research goes on to show that engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity over a period of at least six months leads to an increase in the volume of certain brain regions (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
There is also evidence that suggests that regular exercise works indirectly to improve the overall health of the mind. From a physiological standpoint, exercise stimulates changes such as reducing inflammation and insulin resistance, as well as encouraging the production of growth factors.
These growth factors are chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and can even influence the amount, survivability, and health of new brain cells (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Additionally, exercise works indirectly on the brain by improving mood and sleep and reducing stress and anxiety.
Since factors such as these tend to impair cognitive functioning, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that improved mood and sleep and a reduction in stress and anxiety as a result of exercise then leads to improved cognitive functioning to include boosts in memory and enhancing processing (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
A 2014 review included in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found a link between increased physical activity and reduced depressive symptoms in people suffering from mental illness. That same study also found a reduction in the symptoms experienced by those diagnosed with schizophrenia (Rosenbaum et. al., 2014). A study published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica in 2014 noted that the addition of a physical exercise program to the treatment plan of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder reduced the symptoms of those patients.
The patients also saw improvements in their sleep patterns (Rosenbaum, 2014). These studies also support the idea of exercise having an indirect impact on the health of the mind. While conditions such as depression and other mental illnesses have been shown to negatively impact cognitive functioning, it is logical to deduce that if exercise helps improve or reduce the symptoms associated with those conditions that cognitive functioning then improves as a result.
These findings illustrate the links, whether directly or indirectly, between regular exercise and increased brain volume, sustained health of brain cells, improved cognitive function, enhanced memory, and better processing.
Eating well might seem like less of a mind health ritual and more of a basic necessity, but there is a difference between simply eating and eating well. While both eating and eating well will keep you alive physically in the short-term, eating well will bode better for your body and mind in the long-term.
Research has shown that a diet rich in many of the foods found in a Mediterranean diet such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and olive oil can have positive impacts on brain health. A study published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in April 2017 found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet seemed to benefit from long-term brain protection by slowing the rate of cognitive decline and improving brain function.
Additionally, over a period of 3 years, those on the Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume (Berk et. al., 2017).
Berries specifically have been noted for their links to improved memory because they are rich in flavonoids. Researchers at Harvard Brigham and Women’s Hospital found in a 2012 study published in Annals of Neurology that women who ate two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
A separate study found that nuts specifically strengthened brainwave frequencies linked to cognition, memory, learning, healing and other pertinent brain functions (Berk et. al., 2017). A 2015 UCLA study looked specifically at walnuts and found that higher walnut intake improved cognitive test scores (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
A diet including tea and coffee also boasts positive mental health effects. A 2014 study from The Journal of Nutrition showed that in addition to a short-term boost in concentration, participants with higher caffeine consumption also scored better on tests of mental function. Investigators at Johns Hopkins University explored a possible link between caffeine found in coffee and tea and the solidifying of new memories.
Study participants were tasked with studying a series of images followed by taking a 200-milligram caffeine tab or a placebo tab. Results showed that more members of the caffeine group could identify the images on the next day of the study (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
The research reveals that eating a nutrient-rich diet, much like the Mediterranean diet, can improve memory, cognition, and overall brain function.
The practice of meditation centers around concentrated focus for the primary purposes of enhancing awareness, promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and increasing personal or spiritual growth. The practice aims to achieve those outcomes via guided exercises such as deep breathing and visualization.
However, meditation can also offer additional benefits to the health of your brain. Some research has found a link between meditation and an actual increase in certain areas of the mind. A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging looked at the brains of 16 people who had never previously meditated and then reexamined their brains after the completion of an 8-week meditation program whereby participants spent 27 minutes on average each day practicing mindful meditation (Ahuja, 2017).
When researchers examined the brains of the participants after the 8-week mediation program period, they found that there was an increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain linked to learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Additionally, the size of the amygdala was reduced which is significant because that is the portion of the brain that controls anxiety and stress (Ahuja, 2017).
Research also suggests that meditation can be beneficial for the attention span. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience examined this connection. The 8-week study found that participants had an improved ability to reorient and maintain their attention (JHA, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007).
A similar study found that regularly practicing meditation resulted in workers who could not only stay focused on a task for a longer period of time but that these workers remembered the details of their tasks better than their peers who did not meditate regularly (Levy et. al., 2011). Another review found that meditation may reverse patterns formed within the brain that contribute to mind-wandering and poor attention (Sood & Jones, 2013).
Furthermore, there is also evidence that shows a connection between meditation and improved memory. One study looked at a method of meditation that pairs saying a mantra/chant with repetitive motion of the fingers, known as Kirtan Kriya.
The study found that this practice improved the ability of the participants to perform memory-related tasks (Khalsa, 2015). An investigation of 12 studies that looked at meditation’s impact on brain health also found that there were several meditation styles that led to improved memory and increased attention and mental clarity (Gard et. al., 2014).
Such evidence points to the benefits meditating can have on the health of the brain, such as an actual increase in the size of certain areas of the brain, improved attention span, and enhanced memory.
Get Adequate Sleep
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) outlines the amount of sleep needed per night for various age groups in order for them to function at optimal levels. For adults ages 18-60, the CDC recommends a minimum of 7 hours per night with 8-10 hours being preferred. For adults ages 61-64, 7-9 hours per night is recommended. Finally, for adults 65+ the recommendation is 7 to 8 hours per night (CDC, 2019).
Failure to get adequate amounts of sleep can be detrimental to the brain. Thus, regularly sleeping an adequate amount based on age and developmental stage can be truly beneficial for the mind.
According to Internal Medicine doctor, Dr. Adarsh Kumar, from the National Heart Institute sleep is a vital time where the brain solidifies connections between neurons. During sleep, the neurons have the opportunity to take a break and repair themselves before they are called on again.
This process improves our memory and helps us learn more efficiently by assisting us in consolidating and organizing information (Ahuja, 2017). This means the ability to think and respond faster and responding with fewer mistakes. Not only that, but it also means an increased likelihood of tackling challenging problems and situations. (Liman, 2020). A 2003 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research observed and recorded these findings.
Researchers gave participants a series of math problems following a night of adequate sleep and then on another occasion after a night of sleep deprivation. Participants did equally well both times, but when they were sleep-deprived they tended to select the math problems that were least challenging (Engle-Friedman et. al., 2003).
Evidence also suggests that the brain processes and even learns new information while we are asleep. The journal Current Biology published a 2014 study that demonstrated that very concept. Researchers asked participants laying in a dark room to group spoken words into certain categories by pressing a left or right button.
When the participants had gotten so used to the task that it became automatic, researchers told the participants that they should continue categorizing the words, but that it was okay to fall asleep. When participants nodded off, researchers introduced new words that fell into the same categories as the words that participants heard when they were awake.
Brain monitoring devices showed that even while the participants were asleep, their brains were using the information they had learned to go through the functions to categorize the words as left or right. When the participants woke up, they did not remember hearing the new words as they slept. Essentially, their brains processed all of the new information while the participants were completely unconscious (Koudier, 2014).
There is further research examining the ties between sleep and the mind that points to a connection between sleep and creativity. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published research in 2007 that looked at this. Following a night of restful sleep, study participants were 33% more successful at completing tasks that required them to make unusual or creative connections in their brain compared to people who hadn’t slept yet.
The findings showed that REM sleep, in particular, the portion of the sleep cycle where dreaming occurs, was essential to enhanced creativity (Ellenbogen et. al., 2007). A 2007 study shared at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention supported these findings. The study showed that people who took 90-minute naps featuring REM sleep performed 40% better on word problems that required them to see connections between seemingly unrelated words than people whose naps didn’t feature REM sleep or people who didn’t nap at all (Kaufman, 2007).
Memory can also be positively impacted by getting adequate amounts of sleep. During sleep, the brain solidifies memories formed during the day. Additionally, the brain works to connect new memories to older ones. Experts at the National Institutes of Health note that Stages 1-4 of the sleep cycle, where REM sleep does not occur, is where memory formation comes into play.
Thus, failure to get sleep during these four cycles specifically can decrease the ability of the brain to learn new information by up to 40%. This is due to the negative impact sleep deprivation has on the hippocampus which is responsible for processing memories (News In Health, 2017). A 2013 review conducted by German researchers found that the brain is actually better at consolidating memories while asleep versus when awake (Rasch & Born, n.d.).
All of this research demonstrates just how vital sleep is for brain processing, creativity, memory, and learning. Ensuring adequate sleep is obtained so that all phases of the sleep cycle are experienced is essential to overall mind health.
Affirmations are sentences are phrases that are designed to impact the subconscious mind so that we can make positive changes to our patterns of thinking, behaviors, habits, and environments. Affirmations are designed to be motivational, enhance focus on goals, and influence the subconscious mind (Sasson, n.d.).
There is also research to suggest that affirmations activate the portions of the brain associated with self-processing. A 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the impacts of affirmations on neural mechanics using a task that could be observed via the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Study results showed that participants who were affirmed showed an increase in the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate, the parts of the brain linked to self-processing, as compared to participants who were not affirmed (Cascio, 2015).
Research also suggests that affirmations are linked to enhanced performance, specifically in the area of attention. Lead researcher Lisa Legault from Clarkson University was involved in a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, that explored this connection.
The study involved randomly assigning 38 undergraduates to a self-affirmation or a non-affirmation condition at the beginning of the study. In the self-affirmatio group, study participants were tasked with ranking six values from most to least important.
They were given five minutes to write about why their highest-ranked value was important to them. The non-affirmation group was also tasked with ranking the same six values, but they were also tasked with writing why their highest-ranked value was not very important to them.
This was done as a means of undermining self-affirmation within that group. Once the values were ranked, participants performed a test of self-control via a “go/no-go” task. Participants were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on the screen. When the “no-go” stimulus, the letter W appeared on the screen they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button.
A sense of threat was introduced into the task by giving participants negative feedback when they made an error (Association for Psychological Science, n.d.). The brain activity of participants was then viewed using electroencephalography (EEG). The findings of this study showed that self-affirmation improved the performance of participants on the go/no-go task.
These participants made fewer errors of commission as compared to those in the non-affirmation group. The findings also showed that those in the self-affirmation group were more receptive to errors they did make which better allowed them to correct their mistakes versus those in the non-affirmation group (Association for Psychological Science, n.d.).
The research illustrates the role that affirmation can play in helping our brains think and perform optimally when practiced on a consistent basis.
Goal setting can literally alter the brain for the better according to research. An article in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews outlined how goal setting restructures the brain to make it more effective. The article outlines the process as follows: First, when a goal is set the amygdala, the part of the brain that creates emotion, evaluates the degree to which the goal is significant to you.
Next, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in problem-solving, defines the specifics of the goal. Then, the amygdala and the frontal lobe work together to help sustain focus on behaviors that will lead to the achievement of the set goal, while also working to help you avoid and ignore situations and behaviors that would impede completion of the goal. Essentially, the brain’s neuroplasticity changes the structure of the brain so that it is optimized to achieve the established goal (Compton, 2003).
A 2003 study involving multiple sclerosis patients at the University of Texas was the first to confirm this finding. Researchers found that MS patients who set ambitious wellness goals had fewer, less severe symptoms than a control group. In effect, goal setting actually helped heal their brains (Stuifbergen, 2003). Additional research also pinpointed the types of goals that most significantly change the structure of the brain.
As it turns out, goals that are highly emotional cause participants to downwardly evaluate the difficulty of achieving that goal according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Essentially, the brain will perceive obstacles as less significant the more you desire a particular goal (Cole et al., 2013).
The 1980 research of Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham k between goal setting and the performance of the brain. As published in the Psychological Bulletin, the amygdala becomes fully activated and the brain is most successful when the goals set are challenging. It was determined that in 90% of the studies, goals that were challenging and specific led to higher performance than general and easy goals.
The research concluded that challenging and specific goals positively affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing performance, and motivation strategy development (Locke et. al., 1980).
This data supports the idea that setting goals change the structure of the brain in a manner that optimizes its ability to function and perform. Not only that, but that setting specific and challenging goals increases focus and improves performance overall.
There is a saying which states, reading is fundamental, and research supports the idea that regularly reading is beneficial for the health and development of the mind. According to researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, one of the benefits of reading for the brain is that it heightens brain connectivity.
In a study, researchers found that when we read the connection between the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language reception, is heightened both during reading and several days following the reading (Clark, 2013).
There is also evidence that shows that reading rewires the brain and creates new white matter.
The 2009 research of Timothy Keller and Marcel Just found that intense reading improvement instructions in young children caused the brain to physically rewire itself. During this process, the brain created more white matter which is known to improve communication within the brain. Such research implies that brain circuits can be treated and improved by the simple act of reading (Science Daily, 2020).
Additionally, reading can be quite beneficial for working memory too. Ongoing research at Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word notes that reading boosts our brain activity.
As the brain stops, thinks, processes, and imagines the narrative, brain functions such as visual and auditory processing, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension are activated. The stimulation of these areas in the brain boosts our ability to recall and remember details and information (The Oprah Magazine, n.d.).
Even our attention spans can be positively impacted by regular reading. As neuroscientist Susan Greenfield noted in her book Mind Change, reading improves the attention span because of the sequential narrative style of many books encourages the brain to think in a similar manner and spend more time on building a story. The process of thinking through the narrative and the complex layers of the story, as well as how those layers fit together, then increase the capacity for longer attention spans (David, 2015).
The research demonstrates how reading can positively impact the mind in the areas of attention, memory, and even the structure and functioning of the brain.
While the rituals included in this report are not all of the practices that can be implemented to enhance the health of the mind, they are some of the most effective and the simplest to incorporate into everyday life.
Whether the goal is to include some or all of the rituals as part of a healthy lifestyle, a routine should be established whereby the rituals that are chosen are practiced each day and even at the same time or in the same manner each day so as to establish a habit that eventually becomes part of the norm over time.
By doing so there are sure to be noticeable improvements in memory, attention, processing, and comprehension among several other areas.
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