By: Pola Rest, Ageless Grace Trainer

multitaskingI have recently come across the idea that doing only one thing at a time is healthy for your brain. One person recommending this is Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph. D., in her recent TED talk. Flex Your Cortex: 7 ways to turbocharge your brain.

Dr. Chapman says our brain is designed to do one thing at a time and that multitasking, so common in our world today, is hard on our frontal lobe, and increases stress hormones. She also says that you can increase your mental productivity when you can concentrate on a single important task at a time.  Furthermore, ‘big idea’ thinking, like synthesizing, interpreting, distilling meaning, can increase the brain blood flow and speed of neural connections. This kind of activity is best when single tasking. Check out the talk, link above.

She is talking about getting the most out of your brain when you are doing brain-work, like writing or planning, thinking about projects, etc. She is talking about brain health for increasing your thinking and productivity.

In Ageless Grace, we do an exercise such as Gentle Geometry which challenges our brain and involves often doing two or more things at once. So why is this good, when single tasking is also good?  These exercises are challenging for the brain, and when we do things which challenge our brains, we create a climate which increases the connections between brain neurons, and even promotes the production of new neurons, which can happen throughout our lives.

It is well known that that the brain LOVES novelty and challenge. When you do things that are rote, your brain goes on autopilot. To create a climate within the brain which is conducive to the growth of new neurons and new connections among existing neurons, you must challenge your brain. By doing something new, difficult, interesting and preferably PHYSICAL, this wakes up the brain and makes it work. Challenges and enriched environments stimulate the production of certain substances (including BDNF – brain derived neurotrophic factor) which prime the brain to grow new connections and new neurons.

Gentle Geometry is a brain challenge, and lasts from between 3 to 4 minutes. Multitasking IS the challenge. Big idea thinking, intense mental work, writing, planning are also challenging to the brain. And they are best done SINGLE MINDEDLY, and without other distractions like cell phone, TV or what have you.

An Ageless Grace Educator had a person in her class who heard about ‘single tasking’, and was sure that she felt terrible after doing Gentle Geometry. Here is how I would handle this:  I always tell people that this is a brain exercise, and that we are NOT looking for perfection.  We actually will not be able to do it (including the instructor), and so don’t worry about it.  The very fact of trying to make one hand do a triangle and your foot do a circle in the air is done to challenge the brain, which has to tell the body what to do, and so creates new neural pathways right then!

Many people have proven that this kind of challenging physical activity produces new brain cells.  A few references below:

From this website:  Move With Balance by Karen Peterson M.A.

Our culture expects older people to decline, not move—to be “set in their ways” and not try new things. But research has shown that the brain learns and changes throughout our lives. We have to exercise our brains to keep them growing.

This is best done by coordinated movement—activities that combine movement with cognitive skills. For example, we move, but while we move we read, or recognize shapes, or recite a poem. Ideally, in a single activity we stimulate many senses—for example, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic at the same time.”

Another reference, an article from NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) which educates people to be personal trainers. The author,  Fabio Comana, MA, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, NASM,  talks about risk factors which lead to cognitive decline.  He then says:

Many of these triggers to cognitive decline are inevitable, but can we slow down, stop or even reverse these age-related decreases? The answer is yes…

The author says that exercise increases the production of brain-protective compounds which increase brain health.  He then goes on to say:

Although much research points towards 30-minutes of exercise, two to three times a week, John Ratey, author of ‘Spark and A User’s Guide to the Brain’ (3, 11), cites that just eight to twelve minutes a day of exercise that evokes a sweat and labored-breathing (i.e., approximately 60% of maximum heart rate or higher) is adequate to demonstrate increase in many of these compounds like BDNF. Furthermore, the inclusion of cross lateral patterns (XLP) (i.e., movement crossing over the body or involving contralateral limbs) helps strengthen the corpus callosum, which is essentially the glue that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.”