Sandra Chapman on Make Your Brain Smarter: It’s Not What You Think at TEDxRockCreekPark (Transcript)

Full transcript of cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman’s TEDx Talk: Make Your Brain Smarter: It’s Not What You Think at TEDxRockCreekPark conference.

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Sandra Chapman – Founder and Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth

Our bodies are living to be a hundred years. But live for what? If our brains are going to keep up with our bodies, right now our life span is doubled what our brain span is. Fortunately, discoveries that we’re making for our body are now being made for our brain, bringing about a fundamental paradigm shift in things that we can do to make our brain healthier and how you think.

For the first time ever, we’re discovering ways to stay mentally vibrant and active till the end of life, barring of course major brain maladies and injuries. So this brain movement is being propelled by evidence showing: yes, we can make our brain smarter. Who knew? If someone would tell me this a decade ago, I would have said there is no way. That is science fiction. But the evidence is clear, it is now science action.

But first, I need to debunk the myths. Far too long we have believed that and lived under the misunderstanding that smart is something that’s fixed and it’s measured by things that we haven’t understood very well. For example, we thought that you’re born — it’s a trait that you’re born with that can’t be improved or changed that much. IQ is fixed. IQ was never designed to measure the highest bar our brain could achieve. And when I asked corporate executives around the country: how do you hire the smartest and brightest people? And they said, ‘Oh well, we use IQ and GPA and SAT or what college they went to and what degrees people have’. You know what? You’re right. It never predicts whose scores to succeed, because mark is more than IQ. It is not fixed, it’s things like ingenious, creative, insightful, resourceful and much much more.

So how do we make our brain smart then? The science of smarter thinking is that you engage your brain’s frontal lobe. Our frontal lobes are our CEO, our command station where you do your decision-making, your planning, your problem solving. It is the largest part of our brain that has the most connections throughout your entire brain, it’s the last to develop aged 25, first to the decline aged 40. But it doesn’t have to happen. We can do something to halt and reverse that.

To do it, to reverse the brain decline, these are the things that we have found and this really is the Big Kahuna for a brain scientist and for you personally. When you change your brain, we see you make your brain healthier, when you use your frontal lobe. We’re able to change your brain at all levels of health, increase brain blood flow. Oh my gosh, that matters to neurons, like the glucose and the oxygen, increase your connectivity of the different networks talking to each other and even increasing the white matter that connects it. Take this, for example, our brain blood flow we lose 2% to 3% every decade beginning in our 20s. With complex thinking we’ve been able to show that people can regain 8%, 10% and 12% in just hours. This is huge, this is why it matters.

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So you say, how do I get those changes in my brain? You have to think in higher level ways to engage your brain. And I’m going to give you some strategies that we’ve shown work. Through using our brain imaging we can see brain change in real time and see people change on cognitive task. I’m going to give you strategies and I call them brain powers.

The Brain Power of 1. This is where you single-mindedly focus on one thing and avoid the task to do two things at once, and you don’t let distractions to come in.

The Brain Power of 2. This is where you look at your long list of things to do and you figure out what are the two most important things that are going to make the most difference to your day and you spend your brain prime time doing those. And one of the things that I used to help people remember that is when you’re hunting elephants don’t get distracted chasing rabbits, right? Because our rabbits take our whole day away.

And then the Brain Power of Deep. This is where — and this is the most transformative, it requires the most effort. And it’s where you take information in from all the sources, blend it with the rich knowledge that’s already in there and you form abstracted ideas, general ideas synthesized — synthesized constantly 10, 20, 30 times a day, talk show here, TV shows, conversations synthesized, get off of automatic pilot.

The Brain Power of Left: reduce the amount of information. Big data freezes our brain.

The Brain Power of Innovative Thinking. Our brain was wired to be inspired. The connections could happen faster when you’re inspired by what you’re doing. It hates status quo and it hates automatic pilot. Our brain goes backwards on those.

Add to these strategies, healthy habits: eat, sleep, move your feet. OK, that sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Things that make sense that we could do. Then why haven’t we been doing them? Because we didn’t know. We didn’t know that you can make your brain smarter, and because we didn’t know we were doing things that we thought were good for our brain, turns out toxic and we have to stop. For example, multitasking, the bane of our society. The science shows it breaks down your brain at every level of health and makes you physically sicker and increases your stress.

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We thought let’s strive for near perfect memory that must mean mentally robust. Memorization does not equate to understanding. Look what’s happening in our education system today. The more that we do this: rote, robotic, regurgitation of information, guess what, the lower our deeper level thinking and advanced reasoning is happening.

And then we thought: well, constant workout, if I keep my memory active, that must be good, right? Wrong. Turns out our brain needs downtime. It needs time to have aha moments to have more energy and to be more productive. Doesn’t that sound grand for your brain to be more energetic and more productive at a time when we’re working so fast we can hardly keep pace with life or think a new thought at the end of the day? We’ve got to make the time to think deeper and also take the time to be inspired by what we can do. We can no longer accept the fate that our brain is living an entire lifetime after our brain has peaked.

Take Luke, he didn’t accept the seat at the state and that he came to me to be involved in high-performance spring training and spent one week 12 hours. At the end of the week he said I feel like I have undergone cognitive resurrection. He said I knew I could work my body stronger and work thousands of hours overcoming all fears. I had no idea I could make my brain stronger and smarter and more decisive. He said I wish I’d known that 20 years ago. You see the highest grade I ever made was a C. I would give anything to be able to go to graduate school and to be a brain scientist to help my truth because they need brain health. I looked at him and I said, Luke, do not accept those outdated notions of GPA, define your smart now. And so guess what he took the challenge, he applied, got accepted to the top tier and he’s going to succeed, because he knows how to work hard.

So what about you? Are you willing to take the stand and say brain, let’s go, I am going to be blazed this path and make sure my best brain years are out there. I’m guessing that you have not even begun to tap the potential within your brain. If you begin to use your brains, I believe that if every single person here begins to embrace the extraordinary power that you have right inside your head, this amazing gift that you’ve been given that we’re going to give so much to the world.

Think about it. Our brain is the most important asset and resource that you have. It’s the power source behind everything that you do. Make sure your best brain years, smarter, healthier are ahead of you.

Thank you.