You are powerful beyond measure. It’s the message that unfortunately isn’t being expressed to us nearly enough right now and it’s one that I would like to emphasize. You are powerful beyond measure and you’re living proof of that. The human body is a miracle, perfectly evolved and designed to allow us to interact and experience the miracle of life around us. That’s the message that I hope to highlight in a number of upcoming articles. I want to highlight the wonder of the human being, and what better place to start than the human nervous system.
The nervous system is what you are, and who you are. It is the orchestrator of every thought, movement, action, and response you have. It receives information from sensory organs, transmits that information through the spinal cord and processes it in the brain. It controls and regulates our internal environment. It’s what makes our heart beat, our lungs breath, our blood vessels dilate and our muscles contract. It’s where we experience love, joy, faith, excitement, fear, anger, and sadness. It’s where we understand our sense of self and our hierarchy of consciousness. It’s what allows us to communicate with one another, coordinate movements, learn and process information, and ultimately experience and interact with every part of our environment. It is constantly growing, adapting, and forming new connections. All of this is made possible through the combined activity of the hundreds of billions of neurons communicating with one another through electrical and chemical signals at lightning-fast speeds to create this conscious experience for us that we call life. The nervous system is a miracle, which makes you an absolute miracle. Give yourself the credit you deserve!
Right now, as you read this, your brain is carrying out incredibly complex tasks. It is stimulating nerves to the muscles in your eyes to adjust the size of your pupil in order to regulate the amount of light coming in so that you can see this fine print with clarity. Your retina is perceiving and relaying each letter you’re seeing to the optic nerve to create an image of the word itself where that image is being interpreted into the speech center of the brain. You are able to recall each specific word you read in a fraction of a second from the massive word bank you’ve accumulated throughout your life. You then group the words together in the context of a sentence and interpret the meaning of it all without hesitation. Something as simple as reading this paragraph is an unbelievably complex display of information gathering, sorting, recall, and understanding. We display this amazing level of detail in wide variety of actions we carry out in a given day. Driving a car, playing an instrument, texting, solving an equation or simply having a conversation all require this mind-blowing amount of communication, memory, processing, and execution between the brain and the body. There’s certainly a level of genius in the simple things that I don’t think get appreciated enough. We just hand out the title of genius to those who are able to do them at an incredibly high level, but that shouldn’t negate the fact that what your nervous system is able to do is genius!
We tend to limit the term genius to fields of mathematics, science, or music without acknowledging that the greatest display of genius might actually be in movement. There is as much detailed cognition in movement and sport as any other endeavor, yet athletic genius is often contrasted with intellectual or theatrical activities. Every time we generate a movement, our nervous system takes into account what the environment looks like and what the goal is. It processes that information and then figures out how to attain the goal. It organizes how that movement will look, and then coordinates how to actually perform the movement. We’re able to then carry out such accurate movements without any conscious thought. The brain can create this amazing synergy between each muscle and joint in the body in all of it’s range of motion allowing humans to achieve amazing athletic feats.
A highly functioning nervous system is critical to athletic success. Whether it’s a defensive back reacting and breaking on a route, a goalie tracking the puck off a slap shot, or a sprinter getting out of the blocks after hearing the starting gun...the importance of the brain’s ability to sense, interpret, and react faster than your opponent can make all the difference. An athlete puts the amazement of the nervous system on display each time they play. I’m always fascinated by the extraordinary amount of calculations athletes can perform during their sport without any conscious thought. Athletes display incredible motor skill, finesse, adaptability, anticipation, prediction, accuracy, reactions and execution. If we use Patrick Mahomes as an example, think about the complexity of one NFL snap. He hears a play call come in, communicates it to the huddle, recalls the play from memory and knows where each player on his team will be going, recognizes patterns of the defense and anticipates their movement, takes the snap, avoids the freak athletes trying to tackle him, anticipates where his receivers will be, how fast they are moving, how fast and far he needs to throw the ball, and then his brain signals the right muscles to contract perfectly for him to deliver a ball with pinpoint accuracy. All this happens within a split second, and that’s just scratching the surface. Luckily for athletes, they are able to focus strictly on the task at hand while the brain is the one doing all the math and physics. The brain is able to paint a picture of where we are in space based on the proprioceptive sensors in our muscles, the pressure/vibration receptors in our skin, the light receptors in our eyes, and the vestibular system in our ears that sense linear and rotational accelerations. The athletes that are able to compound all these calculations the best, are the ones we marvel at watching perform.
As the field of neuroscience continues to boom, the link between the nervous system and human performance has been on the forefront of the research. Whether it’s about improving mental health, academic or athletic success, or just improving the overall function of your nervous system, there are number of ways to optimize the nervous system. I can’t wait to dive into each of these in more detail but in short, here are 5 keys to a high functioning nervous system.
1. Sleep: To be successful at anything, it requires attention and effort. It requires intense focus. When we are awake, we are very alert and our body is constantly sensing the stimulus around us. Throughout your day your attention is being pulled in every different direction and you put in a ton of brain power to stay on task and get work done efficiently. In order to do that day in and day out, your brain needs to reset. When we sleep, we give our brain, our attention, and our mind a complete reset. And just like an athlete’s muscle gains are dependent on breakdown and repair (which occurs during sleep), the brain's ability to grow and create new synaptic connections in response to learning and experience also occur while we sleep.
2. Relaxation and Recovery: This is my umbrella term for all things that promote our rest and recovery. This is where I put meditation, breath work, mindfulness, etc. Anything that transitions you from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. The sympathetic state is our fight or flight response, our stress response. We are on high alert, revved up, and ready for action. We can override that system and put our bodies in a parasympathetic dominant state which is where we recover, grow, and heal. These tools are absolute pillars of brain health that research is showing improve concentration and attention, reduce anxiety and depression, and help to preserve the aging brain. Give it a shot!
3. Movement and Physical Activity: What’s good for the body is good for the brain. Exercise and movement have profound effects on the nervous system. Mentally, we know the benefits of exercise help to ward off anxiety and depression. Exercise releases neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin which boost overall mood and sense of well-being. Physically, it improves blood flow to the brain, stimulates positive structural, functional and chemical changes in the brain, and turns on the expression of specific genes with neuroprotective function. It increases production of neurons and glial cells as well as secretion of neurotrophic proteins. In short, exercise is necessary for the physical health and long-term protection of the brain as well.
4. Gratitude, Positivity, and Growth Mindset: These three mindsets are at the forefront of brain research and what science is telling us is that there is chemical and functional benefits to practicing gratitude, creating conversations of positive self talk with yourself, and beginning to actually self-reward yourself the effort process or learning process of a given task rather than just the end result.
5. Nutrition: Neuroscience continues to understand more about how our diet impacts our molecular systems and mechanisms in regards to mental and physical health. Research is showing that particular nutrients have profound influence on improving cognitive function, promoting protection and repair of the brain, and counteracting effects of aging. While the practical application of diet design, frequency, timing and the ideal amount are still being questioned, the brain superfoods are well known. What I find helpful is that if you have a well balanced diet full of quality food sources, you should be just fine getting adequate amounts of this brain food. In summary, here are a few positive nutrients and foods to add to your grocery list:
Omega-3 Fattys acids: Fish (salmon), flax seeds, chia, kiwi, walnuts
Falvanoids: Green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, dark chocolate
B Vitamins: salmon, spinach, lettuce, eggs, beef, oysters, clams, mussels
Vitamin E: asparagus, avocado, nuts, olives/oil
Iron: Red meat, fish, poultry, lentils, beans
Anti-Oxidants: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, artichoke, prunes