Last week was officially Brain Awareness Week. Yes, the brain—the organ that basically governs all of our body processes—is officially honored for one week in March every year by The Dana Foundation, a New York City-based organization dedicated to advancing brain research and public education.
This only adds to the timeliness of GoodTherapy.org’s recent chat with one of our upcoming continuing education presenters, Dr. John B. Arden. Arden is the director of Kaiser Permanente’s mental health training programs in Northern California and author of a number of books on neuroscience, psychotherapy, mindfulness, and how they work together in our everyday lives. His latest title, The Brain Bible: How to Stay Vital, Productive, and Happy for a Lifetime, offers a scientifically backed examination of simple steps we can all take to nurture optimum cognitive functioning and maintain overall brain health.
Dr. Arden will be presenting on “Neuropsychology: A Brain-Based Therapy” in a GoodTherapy.org web conference in May 2014.
GoodTherapy.org (GT): Can you explain to me what you mean by “brain-based therapy” and where the idea for it originated?
The words “brain-based” need not be thought of at all as another one of these clubs; … but rather, okay, … since we all have a brain, every one of these psychotherapies and theories ought to relate in some way to the brain .… In the long run, brain-based therapy is the common denominator vision of the future, and it’s not just my idea.
GT: Your most recent book, The Brain Bible, discusses “how to stay vital, productive, and happy for a lifetime.” What is the brain’s role in nurturing vitality, productivity, and happiness?
Dr. Arden: We know now that if you want to be healthier—not pick up the latest virus that’s floating around, not suffer from dementia later in life, not suffer from anxiety and depression—and in general, be happier, there are a number of characteristics that have been identified by many scientists over the past 30 or 40 years.
What I try to do in The Brain Bible is take the most important five that have consistently come up as a focus of inquiry and have a robust body of scientific literature backing them as the healthy behaviors for living with greater pleasure, less depression, less anxiety, and less chance of getting dementia later in life. …
And these five factors are incorporated in the mnemonic SEEDS; if you’re planting SEEDS now, and you cultivate them throughout your lifetime, chances are you’re going to feel a whole lot better about yourself and about everybody around you; people are going to want to be around you, you’re going to be ill less often, and you’re going to get dementia symptoms much later than other people.
GT: So, what are these SEEDS factors?
- S—social connectivity: We have these social brain networks that need to be fostered and kindled and cultivated through a lifetime, and those people who don’t [do this] tend to be more depressed, more anxious, get ill more often, and get dementia symptoms much earlier than others. [For example], we know that the telomeres, which are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes, actually shrink with loneliness. So social connectivity—as in, good quality social relationships—has multiple benefits to our immune system and to our mental health, even down to the chromosomal level.
- E—exercise: From an evolutionary vantage point, we as a species were hunter gatherers until roughly 11,000 years ago. That meant we moved about 10 miles a day, and we have the same biology today as we had then … The bottom line is our bodies evolved to move a lot, and very, very few of us move 10 miles a day. And if we don’t get regular exercise, … we don’t have these body-enhancing, brain-enhancing biochemical processes occurring, so our brains get bogged down. On the other hand, when we do get that aerobic boost on a regular basis—let’s say for 30 minutes a day—all sorts of wonderful brain-enhancing biochemical processes occur, including the birth of new neurons in the brain. It is the best antidepressant and the best anti-anxiety agent that we have; it’s better than any antidepressant medication, better than psychotherapy, and better than psychotherapy and medication combined. It is a must—an evolutionary imperative.
- E—education: If we’re not learning something new on a regular basis, we’re not building an infrastructure of brain connectivity. The more connectivity you have, the richer your thoughts—and we call that cognitive reserve later in life. … Learning a lot throughout your life does a lot to build your brain and without doing that, you’re looking in the rearview mirror worrying about the past or the future. So learning something new every day is a way to keep your life vital and exciting.
- D—diet: We are what we eat, and the cornucopia of chemicals that we operate our brain with don’t come out of nowhere; they’re not immaculately conceived. Our body makes these brain chemicals based on the foods that we eat or do not eat. Every one of these neurotransmitters has a precursor amino acid, and if you want to starve your brain of these chemicals, you can have a bad diet, or skip breakfast, or eat simple carbohydrates, or fried foods, or whatever—but you’re going to end up rendering your brain incapable of learning and incapable of having positive thought. So diet is absolutely fundamental.
- S—sleep: Many people think of sleep as just one thing, and as long as they can stay not conscious and not awake, everything’s fine, but there is a sleep architecture that has be adhered to. And there are many things we can do to screw up that sleep architecture, like take various substances, including some pharmacological agents that doctors prescribe for sleep. So getting good hygiene and having good sleep practices is critical for mental health and for not developing dementia later on, but most importantly for not having too much anxiety the next day, or too much depression.
GT: What are some of the brain degrading habits we should all be avoiding?
Dr. Arden: All the SEEDS factors, if not adhered to, are brain degrading. But what else? Substances … Alcohol on a regular basis—and I’m not talking about alcoholism, just regular drinking—is not brain healthy. And another real common one is medical marijuana, which is really out there right now [being touted] as this panacea, but it is not brain healthy. … Do I think it’s the worst thing in the world if you smoke a joint? No. But if you do that on a regular basis, just like if you drink alcohol on a regular basis, not so good for your brain.
BrainFacts.org. What is neuroscience? Retrieved from http://www.brainfacts.org/about-neuroscience/what-is-neuroscience/
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