Here is the full transcript of Steve Ilardi, associate professor of psychology, on Brain Chemistry Lifehacks at TEDxKC Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Brain chemistry lifehacks by Steve Ilardi at TEDxKC
Right now, standing on this stage, by speaking these words, I’m changing your brain. And I know, it sounds like a superpower but you have it, too, you’re changing my brain just by being here.
Now, it all hinges on the single most important thing that I’ve ever learned as a clinical neuroscientist, and here it is: experience changes the brain. Your brain is exquisitely designed to respond, to adapt to every experience you’ll ever have, every thought, emotion, action, perception, all of it leaves an impact on your brain. This simple insight can completely reshape our intuitions about mental illness and about chemical imbalance, and at the same time, it yields some simple and elegant lifehacks any of us can use to enhance brain function. So let’s see how this works.
Today we’re all gathered to bask in the warm glow of TED. Unfortunately, our bodies, your bodies, will spend most of this time just sitting, and that’s a problem because as you might have heard sitting is the smoking of our generation. Physical inactivity, it doesn’t just take a toll on our hearts, our lungs, and yes, our fat cells, it also takes a toll on the brain.
Now, when we’re physically active, key circuits use neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamine and serotonin; they start to light up in pathways scattered throughout the brain, enhancing energy, and mood, and motivation. It’s one of the major reasons why exercise is proven to be a potent antidepressant.
So, two landmark clinical trials at Duke University: researchers had the audacity to test exercise head to head against Zoloft. They found 30 minutes of brisk walking, just three times a week was every bit as effective as the medication in fighting clinical depression. 30 minutes, brisk walking. Three times a week. Lifehack.
And then, when the researchers revisited those same patients, one year later, they found the patients who had kept on exercising, those were the ones that were most likely to stay well. They didn’t see any similar protective benefit of just staying on medication. It turns out, exercise also enhances our cognitive function, it improves memory, and attention, mental clarity; it even helps keep your brain young by triggering the growth of new brain cells. So let me put it simply: exercise, it’s medicine. And I mean that quite literally. It enhances brain function as powerfully as any medication.
And trust me, if big pharma could somehow capture the neurochemical benefit of exercise — can you see it? — put it in a pill and then sell it to you, they would do it in a heartbeat. And then, they would finally have a blockbuster drug completely free of any difficult side effects like weight loss or weight gain, sedation, emotional blunting, loss of libido.
OK, let’s take another example. This one’s maybe more risky. Instead of sitting here, in this darkened auditorium what if you were to get up, walk outside and bask in sunlight? The instant you stepped outside, specialized receptors in your retina in the back of the eye would kick off an avalanche of neurological activity. These receptors have a broadband connection to body clock circuitry buried deep inside the brain. These are circuits that regulate your sleep, and appetite, and arousal, and hormone levels.