Ok, this text is pretty complex and might be in places hard to fully understand, still, don´t give up but give it a try! You might actually learn something new 🙂
We all know that excercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why. We assume it´s because we´re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, and we leave it at that. But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best. This benefit of physical acticity is far more important than what it does for the body. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects.
As our species has evolved, our physical skills have developed into abstract abilities to predict, sequence, estimate, plan, rehearse, observe ourselves, judge, correct mistakes, shift tactics, and then remember everything we did in order to survive. The brain circuits that our ancient ancestors used to start a fire are the same ones we use today for example to learn English.
“That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”
(Rodolfo Llinás – I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self.)
Ok, so lets go into the jargon stuff 😉
The cerebellum in the brain coordinates motor movements and allows us to do everything from returning a tennis serve to resisting the pull of gravity. Starting with evidence that the trunk of nerve cells connecting the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex are proportionally thicker in humans than in monkeys, it now appears that this motor center also coordinates thoughts, attention, emotions, and even social skills. When we exercise, particularly if the exercise requires complex motor movement, we´re also excersising the areas of the brain involved in the full suite of cognitive functions. We´re causing the brain to fire signlas along the same network of cells, which solidifies their connections.
When we learn something, a wide array of connected areas are called into action. The hippocampus doesn´t do much without oversight from the prefrontal cortex. Broadly speaking, the prefrontal cortex organizes activity, both mental and physical, receiving input and issuing instructions through the brain´s most extensive network of connections. It is responsible for, among other things, keeping tabs on our current situation through so-called working memory, inhibiting stimuli and initiating action, judgin, planning, predicting – all executive functions.
The hippocampus is something like the cartographer, receiving new input from working memory, cross-referencing that information with existing memories for the sake of comparison and to form new associations and reporting back. A memory is a collection of information fragments dispersed throughout the brain (present moment consensus among the scientists).
Brain scans show that when we learn a new word, for example, the prefrontal cortex lights up with activity (as does the hippocampus and other pertinent areas, such as the auditory cortex). Once the circuit has been established by the firing of glutamate (excitating neurotransmitter), and the word is learned, the prefrontal cortex goes dark. It has overseen the initial stages of the project, and now it can leave the responsibility to a team of capable emplloyees while it moves on to new challenges.
This is how we come to know things and how activities like riding a bike become second nature. Patterns of thinking and movement that are automatic get stored in the basal ganglia, cerebellum and brain stem – primitive areas that until recently scientists thought related only to movement. Delegating fundamental knowledge and skills to these subconscious areas frees up the rest of the brain to continue adapting, a crucial arrangement. Imagine if we had to stop and think to process every though and to remember how to perform every action. We´d collapse in a heap of exhaustion before we could pour our first cup of morning coffee.
Excercise improves learning on three levels:
1) It optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation
2) It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information
3) It spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus
Choose a sport that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain – tennis is a good example – or do a ten-minute aerobic warm-up before doing something nonaerobic and skill-based such as rock climbing or balance drills. While aerobic excercise elevates neurotrasmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks. The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections. And even though these circuits are created through movement, they can be recruited by other areas and used for thinking. This is why learning how to play the piano makes it easier for kids to learn math (tried and tested that by myself also :). The prefrontal cortex will co-opt the mental power of the physical skills and apply it to other situations.
Learning the asanas of yoga, the positions of ballet, the skills of gymnastics, the elements of figure skating, the contortions of Pilates, the forms of karate – all these practices engage nerve cells throughout the brain. Studies of dancers, for example, sow that moving to an irregular rhythm versus a regular one improves brain plasticity. Because the skills involved in these activities are unnatural forms of movement, they serve as activity-dependent learning. Any motor skill more complicated than walking has to be learned, and thus it challenges the brain. At first you might be awkward and flail a little bit, but then as the circuits linking the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and prefrontal cortex get humming, your movements become more precise. With repetitions, you´re also creating thicker myelin around the nerve fibers, which improves the quality and the speed of the signals and, in turn, the circuit´s efficiency.
By doing complex excercise and practice you´re activating the brain and the muscles all the way down through the system. And then you´re primed and ready to move on to the next challenge, which is what it´s all about!
This text was referated and modified from “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Excercise And The Brain”.
Some jargon links here in case you were unfamiliar with some of the terms: