Hungry hungry hippocampus: Diets and your brain

DSC_6903Wanting to eat better, lose weight or improve fitness is one thing … for many of us, actually achieving these goals can prove elusive. Common sense is not always enough to achieve lasting change, and there is such diverse and too often contradictory information out there on health, fitness and dieting.

ABC’s All in the Mind aired a story in late October exploring some lines of research that may shed some light on some of the challenges of dieting – and how we might overcome them.

You can listen to the full program, or read the transcript here: Diet on the Brain

Particularly interesting in this program is reference to some research on how the brain might be “trained” to prefer certain types of food, depending what you typically eat when you are most hungry. More information on that research can be found here:

Train Your Brain to Prefer Healthy Foods

Neuroplasticity in action

It’s likely that by now you have at least heard the term “neuroplasticity”. Our understanding of the human brain’s capacity to rewire itself has grown dramatically over the past few decades. We have written about it previously in our blog post Rewire your brain: neuroplasticity FTW!.

It’s one thing to hear about neuroplasticity. But it is something else altogether to see it in action. Today I stumbled across this youtube video:

There are lots of skills that are complex and difficult to master, for which the development of new neurological wiring through continual practice will be essential to mastery. But rarely do we see such a <em>dramatic</em> challenge to achieving the most rudimentary level of competence. Why is this bike so difficult to ride?  If we reversed the steering in a car people would very quickly be able to adjust. Anyone who has played a reasonable number of flight-simulating computer games will know how quickly that adjustment can occur, because a proportion of those games reverse the vertical control axis. Adjusting to that can be accomplished in hours. It took <em>eight months</em> for the presenter of this video to be able to ride this bike.

The challenge with reversed steering on a bike is that steering is not <em>only</em> used to control your direction, but constant small adjustments are made to maintain balance on the bike. With the steering reversed there is almost <em>no room for error</em> that would allow the brain to try an option, realise it is producing the wrong result and adjust accordingly. It is worse than learning to ride the <em>first</em> time because the brain is predisposed by existing wiring to select a set of motor responses that are the precise <em>opposite</em> of what are needed, amplifying any imbalance instead of correcting it.

…so the thing that amazes me most, watching this video, is that even under circumstances that are tremendously prejudiced to failure, the neuroplasticity of the brain makes success possible. What might your brain be capable of that may seem impossible to you today?

Bicycle leaning against a wall

“Bicycle” by fedeanimationCC BY 2.0

Rewire your brain: neuroplasticity FTW!

Magnetic resonance imaging capture of a human brain
ABC Radio National’s Health Report recently did a fascinating program on neuroplasticity: Brain plasticity / Measuring brain plasticity (for those who don’t want to listen to the audio there is also a link there to the transcript of the program). I highly recommend this program which outlines some exciting new implications of research into the workings of the human brain.

Our brains are not like computers, which have a fixed hardware onto which you load software and that stores information by re-arranging some ones and zeros electrically. For one thing, the transfer of information in our brains uses a highly complicated combination of electrical and chemical signalling. More significantly, though, as we form new memories and learn new skills our brains actually change structurally. Neuroplasticity is the ability your brain has to change structure – to “rewire itself” in response to experience. Continue reading