Staying healthy in college is an absolute must if you’re going to get the most out of your college experience. But did you know how important a healthy brain is to your overall health and well-being? To address this question, SuperScholar enlisted neuroscientist Matthew Stanford.
Stanford is currently professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedical studies at Baylor University, where he serves as the director of the doctoral program in psychology. Professionally, he has worked with a variety of mentally ill and brain-injured individuals, including those with aggression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, stroke, substance dependence and traumatic brain injury. His writings in psychology and neuroscience are inspired by the many questions he has received from people of faith and by the real life struggles he has observed as friends and acquaintances have attempted to work through the difficult problems associated with mental illness. He is the author of Grace for the Afflicted (2008) and The Biology of Sin (2010). A Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) his research on the interplay between psychology and issues of faith has been featured in such national publications as USA Today and The New York Times, as well as many news websites including Fox, MSNBC, Yahoo and US News & World Report.
For most students, college is the doorway to a career that they have dreamed about since childhood. As a professor of Psychology & Neuroscience for almost twenty years, I have watched a new group of freshmen arrive on campus every year, full of excitement about the new experiences and opportunities that lay before them. As their parents help them move in and unpack what they consider the most important things to make the college experience a success (laptop computers, smart phones, text books and office supplies), I have often wondered if they have given any thought to the single most important item they have brought to campus; the one that will determine the success or failure of the college experience: their child’s brain! Many bright and intelligent students attending college today put themselves at a disadvantage in every class they take because they make choices that limit the functioning of their brain. The following ten things have been shown to enhance brain functioning and can help any college student live up to their full academic potential.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is necessary for learning and allows the brain to repair itself from the stress of daily life. The average adult needs about 7.5 hours of sleep every night. Research has shown that sleep deprived individuals have a shorter attention span, impaired memory, longer reaction times and reduced neural activity during cognitive tasks. Sleep deprivation causes an individual to produce more cortisol and stress hormones. This “stress response” results in inflammation that causes cell death in the brain and limits neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells during learning). College students who sleep six or less hours/night report significantly lower grade-point averages than students who sleep nine or more hours/night.
Movies, TV and Video Games in Moderation
Positive and affirming movies, TV and video games in moderation are certainly not damaging. Unfortunately, in our high tech society this type of entertainment is increasingly taking the place of more healthy activities such as exercise, time with friends and reading. In excess, video media can have a detrimental effect on brain function. Studies show that watching movies, TV and playing video games induces alpha or slow wave activity in the brain. This type of activity is usually associated with drowsy or resting states. Long-term exposure to video media can lead to a permanent change in brain activity (particularly the prefrontal cortex) resulting in impulsive behavior and an inability to concentrate.
Everyone knows that regular exercise benefits our bodies; it helps us manage our weight, increases strength and stamina, reduces stress and improves mood. Exercise is also important for the health of our brain. Research in both animals and humans have shown that regular exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis), increases blood flow to the brain (increasing oxygen) and reduces the level of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Those who exercise regularly learn faster, remember more, think more clearly and bounce back faster from brain injuries and psychological distress than those who do not exercise.
Stay Away from Pornography
Every second, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography. This is not just a problem for men; one out of every three visitors to internet pornography sites is a woman. Viewing pornography significantly increases levels of testosterone, oxytocin and dopamine in the brains of both men and women. This flood of neurochemicals brings about a pleasurable feeling, heightened excitement and focused attention. Increasing dopamine activity causes serotonin levels in the brain to drop, resulting in feelings of euphoria and obsessional thoughts (not being able to stop thinking about the images). Through frequent exposure, a person becomes neurochemically attached to the pornographic material limiting their ability to experience pleasure and form long-lasting relationships.
Develop Good Eating Habits
The neurons of the brain, like other cells in the body, are made of lipids and proteins and require glucose for energy. Brain cells communicate through the use of electrical signals, produced by an ionic solution which surrounds the cells, and neurotransmitters, produced from amino acids within the cells. For your brain to function optimally, it requires sufficient levels of glucose, electrolytes and amino acids, all of which are obtained through the foods you eat. Deficiencies in any of these vital nutrients can lead to cognitive confusion, forgetfulness, lack of attention and mood swings. Making the right diet choices can also decrease a person’s risk of developing brain disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, later in life.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
Alcohol and drug use are significant problems on most college campuses; 73% of college students report that they drink alcohol at least occasionally, while 38% have used illicit drugs in the past year. Surveys show that the average male college student consumes 8.4 alcoholic beverages per week, while females consume 3.6 drinks per week. The highly destructive effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain cannot be understated. These substances wreak havoc on the neurons’ ability to send signals by altering the levels of neurotransmitters within the brain. In addition, alcohol and drugs literally destroy the cells within the brain which can lead to permanent brain damage and cognitive impairment.
Limit the Use of Technology
The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology. The internet, cell phones and texting have altered the social and educational landscapes of society. Unfortunately, they also appear to be rewiring our brains, resulting in an inability to form close relational bonds, false intimacy, an increased frequency of errors from multi-tasking and attentional problems. Chronic use of information technology appears to have a suppressive effect on frontal lobe executive functions. To overcome these negative affects, students should schedule regular breaks from technology, increase face to face interactions with peers and include the use of more traditional approaches to information gathering in their studies, like reading books, magazines and newspapers.
Reading is a highly complex cognitive task that simultaneously engages a significant number of neural systems throughout the brain. Much like an athlete that works his or her muscles through physical exercise, the brain is strengthened by the “mental” exercise of reading. Individuals who read often have superior memories, vocabularies, comprehension skills and attention. Good readers are also better writers. The neurocognitive affects of reading are perhaps most apparent in the fact that reading is protective against damage to the brain as a result of lead exposure, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, other dementias, sleep apnea, or traumatic brain injury.
In a stressful situation, the body reacts with a flood of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) to prepare you for the circumstances at hand. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises and you breathe faster, pumping oxygen rich blood to your muscles. This is the famed “fight or flight” response. Unfortunately, prolonged stress can have damaging effects on the body and the brain. Research has shown that extended exposure to stress hormones actually causes cell death in certain brain areas, particularly the hippocampus (which is vital to learning and memory). This is supported by the fact that highly stressed individuals consistently report forgetfulness and difficulty learning new material.
Develop an Active Spiritual Life
Spirituality encompasses the ways people find meaning, hope, purpose, a sense of internal peace and a connection to things greater than themselves. Studies show that religious and spiritual practices improve mental and physical health. Individuals who are able to connect with a transcendence larger than themselves are able to cope better with stress, resulting in lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. They also report less anxiety, less depression, and increased feelings of security, compassion, and love. Neuroimaging research with highly religious individuals has shown that regular prayer and meditation can positively alter brain structure and function.