A Gray Matter

Gray matter: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s (f)ears and the summit of his knowledge. You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”

Thank you, Rod Serling.

Our gray matter; as much as we know about it, is still kind of a mystery in how it actually works.  We could, almost verbatim, plug in our latest weird dream into a hit twilight zone episode.  It’s crazy what goes on in there.

Our brain is our CPU and as we age, it ages with us.  It takes longer to upload, download, and process information.  It’s slower to access the memory cache.  It gets sluggish, maybe a glitch here and there, and we forget why we walked into this room.  Where are my keys?

We used to think we couldn’t do anything to prevent this and thoughts about reversing damage was just as crazy as the fifth dimension.  As it turns out though, we can, through neuroplasticity.

Our brain has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.  Our brains are malleable, like plastic.  And this plasticity can be improved.

Through neuroplasticity, undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were damaged.  Basically, if the outlet on our wall is damaged, the television won’t function, so we reroute the power cord to another outlet that works and we’re able to watch Stranger Things.

While neuroplasticity is rewiring, neurogenesis is growth.  The production of our brain’s neurons is most active while we’re still in the womb, but we can still develop new neurons into adulthood.  Yeah; this is big.  Really big.

As we age, or get closer to our twilight years, our gray matter shrinks, but we can prevent it and maybe even increase it.  Wait … what?  How?  Movement.  Nutrition, sleep, and removing toxic substances such as aluminum all play important roles, but the star of this episode is movement.

Engaged, whole-body exercise.

By “engaged”, I mean mind and body together.  Yoga and many forms of martial arts produce incredible results, because we have to move our bodies through space in a specific way that requires concentration, mindfulness, and focus, as well as lots of breathing.  Social aspects and connectedness also play a big part.  Cortisol (stress hormone) causes significant damage, but engaged mind-body exercise regulates this problem.

Regular exercise is associated with increased size of the hippocampus (memory) and reversing volume loss.  It increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain and produces a greater release of accumulated toxins, while producing Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which increases neurogenesis.  We also improve angiogenesis, synaptogenesis, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters through exercise.

Anything else?  Yes.  Meditation.

Meditation can actually alter the physical structure of the brain.  According to researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT, meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and overall well-being.

Neuroplasticity:  It will keep our gray matter from getting lost in the twilight zone.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

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