A guest post from Dr. Sarah McKay, Founder of the Neuroscience Academy
Heard of the mind-body connection? Did you know that the chit chat between mind and body goes two ways?
Your body is an integral part of how you think.
Your body, how you move it, and how you interact with your physical surroundings shapes how you think, feel, and behave.
In her new book How the Body Knows Its Mind neuroscientist Prof. Sian Beilock digs into the scientific evidence of the body-mind connection.
Sian Beilock is a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. Her research program sits at the intersection of cognitive science and education. She explores the cognitive and neural substrates of skill learning as well as the mechanisms by which performance breaks down in high-stress or high-pressure situations.
She believes the body-mind connection starts early:
Simple steps like allowing babies to run around naked — when appropriate — can help them explore their worlds. Beilock said wearing nappies (diapers) and using baby walkers can limit a baby’s ability to interact with the world and hinder the process of learning how to walk. The more quickly children learn how to walk and explore, the faster their cognitive development.
Schools need to emphasize “the “4 Rs” — reading, (w)riting, (a)rithmetic, and recess.
Incorporating physical activity can help kids learn in school, according to Beilock (and as the mother of two boys I concur!!)
“We can’t just keep students confined to their chairs — we have to get them up, out and moving. When the subjects are math or physics, getting students to actually physically experience some of the concepts they’re learning about changes how their brains process the information and can lead to better performance on a test.”
Movement also helps explain the connection between music and math. Why do kids tend to excel in both? It’s because the brain areas controlling finger dexterity and number largely overlap. In the book Beilock unpacks the latest research showing that when kids exercise their fingers through regular piano play, their grasp of numbers improves.
Exercise can aid mental health as well as academic achievement, according to Beilock.
“The research shows that getting kids moving is important not only for their physical well-being, but for their mental well-being, too.”
Boys’ academic achievement may especially benefit from recess, Beilock believes.
Exercise is not just for kids. Beilock believes that exercise is equally important for older adults, as it can promote healthy aging mentally and physically.
“There are clear differences in brain health in fit, older adults compared with their more sedentary counterparts. And these differences carry consequences for thinking and reasoning as well as for memory.”
Beilock stresses that aerobic exercise, which can alter the structure and functioning of the brain, is key for improving mental health. Activities like swimming, running, cycling, walking briskly or even doing household chores at a vigorous pace can benefit the brain, in addition to keeping the body fit.
How the Body Knows Its Mind provides many tips on how to use one’s body, actions or surroundings to stimulate the mind and to influence those around you.
5 ways to improve your body-mind connection:
- Take active breaks from work or vexing problems to give your brain a chance to regroup and reboot. Physically walking away from the problem for a few minutes may help you solve it.
- Your body’s posture and expressions are not just reflections of your mind — they can influence your mood. Stand tall to help give yourself confidence and to send a signal to those around you that you have brought your “A” game to the table. And be mindful of your facial expressions. Your brain uses your expressions as cues to feel emotions. Smiling can actually make you feel happier.
- Practice in the real conditions under which you will have to perform — whether it’s public speaking, a test or an important match. It’s also good to practice in front of others so when all eyes are on you, it’s nothing new.
- Write it out. Journaling can help you deal with the stress of a test or your worries in daily life. Physically downloading worries from your mind (by putting pen to paper) has positive performance outcomes and reducing that stress affects your health in good ways, too.
- Spend time in nature as often as you can, and find time to meditate. New science shows that a walk in the woods rejuvenates our minds and improves our ability to pay attention and focus. Meditation for even a few minutes a day can help alleviate anxiety and chronic pain. It also can help with self-control that may be helpful for working to break bad habits, like smoking.
“Little things we do can have a big effect…if we can understand the science behind how the body affects the brain, we will be in a great position to ensure that we’re always putting our best foot forward when it matters the most.”