Daniel GallucciMar 18

Brain Awareness Week

A clear bowl of cubed butter sits on a kitchen table. Another block of butter is blurry in the foreground.

Task: Take a stick of butter out of the refrigerator and leave it on the counter.

Come back the following day, unwrap it and start poking and prodding around. That is what it feels like to touch a living human brain.

The brain’s we see on the internet or PBS style documentaries are often preserved and chemically hardened — a real brain, your brain, feels nothing like that.

I once had a neuroscientist colleague tell me,

“I really think that people would take better care of their brain if they knew how delicate it was.”

I would have to agree with him.

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) March 15-21

BAW is a global initiative dedicated to foster enthusiasm for all things brain and brain science. BAW is hosted by the Dana Foundation, a large philanthropic organization with reaches far and wide.

They have tons of activities you can do on your own, with children, parents, grandparents etc. And lots of super cool info about the 3lbs of softened butter between your ears.

In addition, I’m tossing in three more activities you can do that will kick your brain up a notch during the last bit of BAW:

1. Continuous Paced Exercise (CPE): I’m not prone to blanket statements, but here’s one; Continuous aerobic exercise will improve blood flow to the brain! Adequate blood flow is critical to maintaining and even restoring brain health. 30 minutes a day, 4 days a week at a continuous pace where you can be having a conversation with the person beside you is a wonderful intensity to begin with.

Don’t worry too much about your heart rate. It’s a terribly unreliable indicator of what’s physiologically happening in your body. Temperature, sleep, stress, excitement etc., can create massive swings in heart rate with no underlying change to your physiology. Keep it simple, conversation paced is best.

2. Stick Stuff in Your Nose: I discovered a magical phenomenon not too long ago. From the age of zero — 10, kids are more than happy to stick stuff up their noses. They enjoy doing it and I enjoy watching it. Then from 10–75 years of age, society and its universal sense of decorum dictates that we should not really stick things in our noses. After the age of 75, these folks will do/should do whatever they want. Banana Split for breakfast? Have at it. Little bottle of Brandy in the side pocket of the couch? You bet. Tomato leaf stuffed into your nostril reminding you of the garden you had as a child? Of course.

Smell is a wonderful way to stimulate emotions as well as memories. The smell of a fresh fig instantly transforms me into an 8-year-old playing in my Grandfathers yard.

Smell has the highly evolved, powerful ability to go from the back of your nose (olfactory receptors) directly to areas that form memories and process emotions. All your other senses must make a series of stops and relays on their way to their desired destination, but not smell. This straight line from A to B is how smell can evoke such powerful responses, memories, and emotions so quickly.

In clinic during BAW we choose different smells each day and see what kinds of memories or emotions they conjure up, if any. Vanilla often spawns early ice cream memories. Dirt, an elementary school playground. Cigarettes, a grandparents often unwanted embrace.

Give it a try, spend the week smelling stuff. What memories does it conjure up for you? What emotions are hitching a ride along side the activation of these specialized neural networks? Do smells have the same intensity in your left vs right nostril? Are there some things that you can’t really even smell at all? Albeit “different”, this can be a great way to explore the depths of your brain.

3. BAW Social: Lizards hatch and are pretty much ready to rock n roll. They can move along and search for food while being largely alone. There is no mother/infant bonding, no strokes of love sending out “affective talk” to certain areas of the brain concerned with bonding, love, and connection.

Humans are social creatures. We need connection and have evolved to interact with those around us. Sure, the coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench into our connectedness but that doesn’t mean we can’t be social. It may require more time on Zoom, or making calls to those you care about, but there’s no reason to become a lizard.

Many countries and cities are also doing a great job vaccinating their population (Canada a sad exception), so there seems to be light emerging from this long dark tunnel.

In the meantime, the Dana Foundation has put together some cool activities and challenges for Brain Awareness week. Try some of these challenges for yourself and then send them on to someone else. Throw your scores or times in for good measure and turn the week into a Mini Mental Olympiad.

Beyond BAW

Brain Awareness Week is just that, a week. It takes much longer than that to make real improvements to your brain health, but you have to start somewhere. Movement is a great way to begin. Then you can build off of that and see what works for you.

A word of caution; I had a patient living in New York city that was so fond of his deceased father’s Southern Carolina BBQ skills that he would stick smoked hickory chips up his nose (yes, I advised this) to transport him back in time. One particular night, the chip went too far, and he needed it extracted via the local Emergency Room. You do not need to physically touch the brain to enjoy the benefits of smell, or any other form of brain stimulation.

Stay safe folks and start training.