Jan 26, 2009

Diet and the Brain

Athletes must watch every calorie they eat in order to stay in tip-top competitive form. This means counting carbs, watching fat intake, and getting plenty of nutrients and vitamins. Thanks to recent studies, we now know that this same methodology could (and should) be applied to anyone looking to keep their mind as sharp as possible. Last week we covered the importance of exercise and how physical activity affects the brain, so this week, we round out our mental fitness program by covering diet.

Spending a quick ten minutes on a stationary bike will help boost focus and yield higher brain functions by improving the connections made inside the brain. These connectors (or “neurotransmitters”) are dependant on a compound known as Omega-3 fatty acids. When ingested, Omega-3s help improve learning and memory by supporting synaptic plasticity, or in other words, how well neurotransmitters are sent and received within the brain. More specifically, several studies have shown Omega-3 acids to help children improve in reading, spelling, and in-class behavior. Although available as a supplement in pill form, the natural abundance of Omega-3s in fish, seeds, and nuts should be considered when choosing meals.

In addition to the Omega-3 compound, amino acids are essential to healthy brain activity. These come from the breakdown of proteins, such as those found in eggs, meat, or milk. After digesting protein, the brain responds by producing norepinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals which elevate mood and focus. Without proper protein intake, you could feel sluggish and drowsy.

Additionally, carbohydrates help fuel the brain with glucose. Whole-grain crackers or bread are great for snacks and a quick energy boost between meals. Starchy vegetables, such as corn or potatoes, are another good source.

Beyond the specifics of what you eat and how it affects your brain, diet is a matter of balance. While the intake of Omega-3s has been linked with better brain function, three courses of Omega-3s a day will not necessarily make you smarter, just as a protein-only diet will not necessarily produce an abundance of norepinephrine and dopamine. Instead, these compounds and chemicals are best used in balance with all the other nutrients your body needs. The food pyramid that we all learned in grade school is still relevant, but to eat smart, you need to know what you have on your plate.

Jan 19, 2009

Physical Exercise and the Brain

In order to live a healthy life you must have some kind of physical activity every day. But can exercising your body affect the way that you think and learn?

In a recent podcast interview to promote his new book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Dr. John Ratey explains how in some schools troublesome children are given a “Time In” as opposed to a “Time Out”. This basically means that when a child is disruptive they are not put in isolation as traditional punishment dictates. Instead, they are instructed to use a stationary bike or similarly active task for a few minutes. Some even employ the videogame “Dance Dance Revolution”, where the player must synch-up quick dance steps with images on a television screen. The idea is to stimulate the release of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters through exercise, and thus bring a balance to internal brain chemistry. The release of these chemicals helps in activating the frontal cortex, therefore inhibiting the lower functions of the brain, such as those that cause impulsive and runaway behavior. Dr. Ratey refers to recent studies as proof that exercise has been decisively linked to better marks in school, especially math.

In fact, exercise has been cited as an effective treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, including depression, ADD, and the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. During exercise, the brain releases the same chemicals it would under the influence of medication prescribed by a psychiatrist (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, etc.). These chemicals increase focus and energy, decrease impulsiveness, elevate mood, and give a bevy of other positive effects. In addition, the brain becomes more able to rewire itself and create those connections associated with learning. And the best part is – exercise is freely available to all and comes with no side effects!

Jan 12, 2009

Finding An Internship

We all have to go into the “Real World” eventually, and I don’t mean the one that automatically comes with a beach house. No matter how hard we may resist, getting a job and establishing a career is a fate everyone must meet. But what if working a regular job actually wasn’t that bad? What if working was, in fact, enjoyable?

Think of your ideal job. Some prospective occupations, like astronaut and rock star, are obviously a bit more far-fetched than others. But for many of the more realistic jobs, you should consider an internship. Internships are a great way to get training and a feel for what it’s like to work at a job you desire. You also might make a little money.

So, how can you go about getting a position as an intern? The first step is to create a resume. A resume is a list of qualifications you have that make you deserving of the position. For example, if you want an internship as a writer with Rolling Stone, it would be very helpful to have experience working at your school’s newspaper (or any other writing/editing experience). Also, any knowledge you have about music and the music industry, perhaps from working as a DJ at your college’s radio station, would be a plus. Consider anything that might pertain to the job, such as experience, special knowledge, and skills, and add that to your resume. Complete your resume with a cover letter illuminating your passion for the internship. Avoid sounding too general—you want the person considering you for the position to think that particular job is the only one in the world for you. Another great way to show this is to include any examples of your work, such as photos if you are applying for a photography internship. If you don’t have any samples, create some. This will demonstrate your eagerness to work.

Next, inquire into the application process for the internship you are interested in. Many big companies (like Rolling Stone) must sort through a huge volume of applications, so there are usually specific times to apply. If possible, establish a relationship with someone in the company.

Once you have your resume and application submitted, there are three words you must remember: persistence, persistence, persistence! There once was a kid, fresh out of high school, who desperately wanted to be a writer for his favorite car magazine. He put together his resume and wrote up some examples, only to contact the magazine and find out the magazine did not have and internship program in place. However, he stuck to his guns and established a relationship with one of the editors. After several weeks of emails and phone calls, he convinced the magazine to create the internship. He was able to be the first-ever intern for the magazine, and now, several years later, he contributes to them on a regular basis!

Jan 5, 2009

How To Get Creative

Some people love Math class. They love following an equation, changing it, crunching numbers and solving for unknowns. Then there are others who follow a more artistic path, such as drawing, designing, making music, or writing. But whether your dream job is a position in accounting or owning your own studio, creativity can be extremely important. Unfortunately, the Muse is fickle at times. When you find your creativity blocked, you might begin to feel frustrated by a lack of progress.

Ideas will come and go, but even the most imaginative people need to jump-start their creative side from time to time. If your creativity seems to be burnt out, try these techniques to spark it once again.

Any time you feel as if you simply don’t have any more ideas, recognize the need to refocus your energy instead of going in circles. Time you spend getting back your creativity is just as valuable as the time you spend creating.

Next, take yourself away from the problem. Instead of fretting over your work, spend 15 minutes outside walking around. Employ all your senses to wake-up your brain. Your subconscious will still be working on the problem, and you might have a moment of clear insight, a.k.a., an “Aha!” moment.

Try engaging media like the kind you’re trying to make. If you are trying to paint or draw, study the work of some of your favorite artists. If you are trying to write, read some poetry from your favorite author. If you are trying to make some music, listen to your favorite album. The ideas of others could help stimulate the flow of your own.

New pathways of creativity could also help. Instead of painting, try sculpting. Instead of writing words, try writing music. You’ll find that the more creative outlets your brain has, the more creativity your brain will create.

Foster any creativity you might have. Embrace all your ideas. While not every single one will be a breakthrough or revolution, acknowledging any and all kinds of creativity will help your brain loosen up the creative juices for the future. Don’t stifle any thoughts. The key is to let the creativity flow through you.

It’s also important not to be afraid of being wrong
. Without taking any risks, you won’t be original or inventive. In the world of creative thinking, it is the most ambitious mind that takes the glory.