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The brain, a garden

The brain is like a garden

The familiar term intestinal flora would suggest there is merit in extending it in comparing the brain with a garden. In this "garden" you have growing not plants but synaptic connections between neurons. These are the highways used by neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

Gardeners of the brain

Glial cells are the gardeners of your brains. Appropriate to the metaphor, they run many diverse errands. You can see them at work as waste processors removing weeds, insects and dead leaves from the "garden brain." The gardeners doing the pruning are called the microglial cells.

The latter maintain the links so that order is being remained throughout the system and sprawl does not get the upper hand. Thus, physical space is cleared for new and stronger connections to be made on a continuous basis. This is favorable as it allows you to keep on learning throughout life.

Clean your head

Pruning takes place during sleep. The feeling of clarity in those mornings following a good night's sleep is directly linked to this key task. The neat "garden" now has room for growth. When you build up a lack of sleep, however, it's like you have to chop through a thick jungle: everything moves slowly and it costs a bunch of effort to get anywhere.

For the same reason, doing a nap is good for immediate cognitive ability. Short naps suffice: 10-20 minutes is sufficient for the microglia gardeners to do some cleaning up of rubbish and to reset brain function.

Use it or lose it

The connections you are not using are cleaned up and the connections you do use are being watered and pampered. A good example might be that foreign language you had to learn as a high school student. If there was a time you understood and spoke French reasonably well, you may have lost this capacity if you've never engaged in French conversation since.

Your current thought patterns also affect the maintenance of neuronal connections. For instance, if you spend a lot of thought on a manifest or pending personal conflict rather than, say, innovation, your brain actually gets better at thinking of revenge or achieving perceived justice, while your innovative qualities shrivel.

The Cherokee story of the two wolves

The foregoing is nicely captured in an age-old Cherokee wisdom. It’s the story of two wolves.

An old Cherokee gives his grandson a life lesson.

"In every human being a battle being fought," he says to the boy. "It is a terrible fight between two wolves."

"One wolf is evil: he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego."

"The other wolf is good: he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thinks about this for a while and then asks his grandfather: "Which wolf will win the fight?" The old Cherokee smiles and replies, "The one you feed."

To engage this natural mechanism positively and constructively, simply start thinking about things that are important to you. The brain’s engagement will be amplified structurally in terms of neuronal connections while connections associated with competing, unimportant engagements, are gradually trimmed away.

Stimulate your brain: Getting practical

You can boost the functioning of the brains, and a concomitant positive mindset, even further in a simple way. Want a 14% increase in performance, a better mood, better sleep and less stress? Go stand on your head or go hang upside down!

Dr. Robert Martin wrote about the benefits of the latter “inversion therapy” in his 1981 book The Gravity Guiding System: Turning the Aging Process Upside Down.

Hanging upside down is not just for people with back problems. A yoga headstand, upside down handstand or lying on a staircase are also fine.

Ideally, you want to work towards two 15-minute sessions per day. Build up to this in a gradual, step-by-step way. If after several months you reach 15 minutes, repeat your sessions on a daily basis and document your results!

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