Full text of award-winning neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki’s talk titled “Exercise and the Brain” at TEDxOrlando conference. In this talk, Wendy discusses her research which focuses on understanding the patterns of brain activity underlying long-term memory as well as the role of aerobic exercise in improving learning, memory and cognition.
Wendy Suzuki – Neuroscientist
How exciting to be here!
What I’m going to try and do today is add to the amazing lineup of speakers today by bringing the brain into our discussion of the creative spark.
And I want to do that by telling you about some of the newest research that I’ve been doing in my neuroscience research lab at New York University, asking the question: Can aerobic exercise, that is can going to the gym actually improve your learning, memory and cognition?
I also want to address the question of whether increased aerobic exercise can also make you more creative.
Now, I remember the day that I realized I wanted to become a neuroscientist. I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, and I was taking a freshman seminar class, with just 10 or 15 of us, called “The Brain and Its Potential,” taught by Marian Diamond.
She was standing at the front of the classroom, and up there at the front, she had this beautiful hat box. And with her gloved hands, she opened that hat box, and out she pulled a real, live, fixed human brain.
Now, it was the very first time I’d seen a human brain. And what she told us was that what she was holding in her hands was the most complex structure known to mankind; it’s the only structure that can think about itself.
And one of the most amazing things about the brain is that it can change as a function of the environment; it can learn; it can grow. And I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my whole life.
And I didn’t know it that day, but that idea of the brain and its potential and what’s called neural plasticity – the ability to change as a function of the environment – was going to become my life’s work in science. That’s what I want to tell you about today.
So I started out studying a structure in the brain called the hippocampus. It’s really important for long-term memory. But more recently, I’ve become interested in how exercise can actually improve our learning, memory and cognition. And I got interested in that not because I read a paper or went to a talk; I went to the gym.
When I turned 40, I decided I wanted to get in the best shape of my life, and I went to the gym. And the class that I found that kept me coming back to the gym on a really regular basis was a class called “IntenSati,” developed by this amazing fitness instructor named Patricia Moreno in New York City.
Now, IntenSati is unique because it takes physical movements from kickbox, dance, yoga and martial arts, but the unique part is that it pairs each physical movement with a positive, spoken affirmation.
What do I mean by that?
So, in IntenSati, we don’t just punch; we say, “I am strong now.” And the class says it back to you.
So what happens is that you not only get that great aerobic exercise, but because you’re speaking out, you actually get an increase in aerobic output and it makes you feel great.
So the bottom line was I got in great shape. But there were two amazing benefits that I noticed.
One was that I had this amazing motivation; I felt like a million bucks after I came out of this class. And I couldn’t wait to go back. And I thought, “My gosh, Patricia Moreno is an amazing teacher to instill that kind of motivation.”
And then I thought, “Well, wait a second, I’m a teacher. I wonder if my students feel that way after my neuroanatomy class.”
I’m going to come back to that in a second.
The second amazing benefit was that when I went back to work – when I started doing IntenSati I was writing a lot of grants – and I noticed that as I got more regular with the workouts, my writing got easier. I was able to make associations better; I was able to focus better, and I thought, “This is amazing. I want to look at the neuroscience literature to understand what’s going on.”
And I looked at the literature – a lot of new studies coming out as well as looking at some of the older studies that had led to our current understanding.
And when I looked at those, I found a very familiar name. That name was Marian Diamond. So she was not only my undergraduate advisor, but she was a real pioneer in neuroscience research, and really only one of the only women working in this field back in the late 1950s and ’60s, when she discovered that when you raise rats in what she called an “enriched environment,” with lots of toys to play with, other rats to play with, and they run around a lot.
And you compared their brains to rats raised in what she called an “impoverished environment,” with no toys, just a couple of rats in a small box, what you can do is measure their brain. You measure, actually, the thickness of that outer covering of their brain called the cortex.
And what she found is that the rats raised in enriched environments had cortices that were actually thicker; their brain grew as a function of this enriched environment. And later studies showed that exercise, the increased exercise that those rats were getting because they were running around a lot more, was a big factor in that brain change.
So I thought, “Okay, this is an area that I really want to get to know.” And as a professor, the best way to get to know a topic area is to teach a class. So I decided I’m going to teach a class at NYU called “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?”
And I decided because I got inspired to do this because of exercise, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could bring exercise into the classroom and not only teach students about what exercise is doing to their brain but also teach them, have them experience what exercise felt like?”
So I thought, “I could do this.”
So I decided to go to the gym, and of course I loved IntenSati, so I became a certified IntenSati instructor and a certified fitness instructor. I could tell you, “Oh, it was so hard. I was teaching classes, I was writing grants,” but the truth is it was so much fun.
It was really fun because I got to learn a whole new way to move, a whole new way to motivate students, and I stayed in great shape. So there was nothing better.
So I had this class; I was teaching. I was going to teach an hour of aerobic exercise. I trained for six months to be able to teach in front of this class – I had never done this before, but I thought it’d be fun – so teach an hour of aerobic exercise, an hour of IntenSati, followed by an hour-and-a-half lecture on the effects of exercise in the brain.
But then I realized I had my first study right there: my students could be my subjects in my first study. All I had to do was test them cognitively at the beginning, at the end of the semester and compare their performance to a class that didn’t exercise and ask whether, in fact, exercise could improve their cognitive performance.
So that’s exactly what I did.
And before I tell you what our prediction was and what our results were, I just want to take you back for a moment to September 7, 2009, which was the first day of this “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” class.