How Can We Make Our Brains Better?

How Can We Make Our Brains Better?

By Rob Gronbeck

In this blog I’m going to explore the concept of ‘threshold’ and why it’s crucial that we force ourselves to train and practice at the top reaches of our ability. I’ll also be explaining what it means to push our brains and bodies to the max, and how exploiting this can result in serious brain gains.

The Growth Zone

As a high-school student working at a supermarket checkout I prided myself on having the fastest items scanned per hour! Being a competitive athlete and gamer it was just another example of me wanting to be the best. My balance was always one of the most important factors to ensure I moved with grace and ease and yet also with speed and agility.

Now, 25 years later I still find myself working, training and practicing at threshold as it is where the growth occurs. I call it ‘The Growth Zone.’ In addition to stepping up to my personal thresholds I also guide my clients to practice being ‘on the brink.’ As a peak performance psychology coach I’m committed to increasing my own and my client’s thresholds of brain, breath, emotion, and the central nervous system performance. All important parts of the ‘performance brain’.

How to Increase Brain Speed

Let me explain with an example from working with football (soccer) clients for many years. I previously introduced the learning gains that can be achieved with NeuroTracker, the 3D multiple object tracking program used to measure a person’s “visual tracking speed.” The question, “how fast is my brain?” can be answered as the client tracks four yellow balls (targets) bounce, collide and pass by each other around a 3D screen while four identical yellow balls (distractors) share that space. See here for how it looks.

A person’s “visual tracking speed threshold” (VTS max) is computed by the NeuroTracker scoring algorithm as ‘the speed which the person can reliably keep track of all the targets for the duration of the trial.’ As a 2013 Nature article illustrated, professional athletes possessed a higher VTS max than amateur athletes in the NCAA system, while non-athletes showed a lower VTS max than both athlete groups.

The question then leads us to ask, “How can we increase our ‘brain speed’?” Thankfully the Nature article also showed a steady learning curve for all three groups the more they performed the task. Just like jogging, lifting weights, or practicing knitting the more they did it the better they were able to perform. This is an example of how deliberately training at threshold (which is what the NeuroTracker does once it has calculated your VTS max) causes increases in that threshold.  

Not All Brains are the Same

A final and fascinating final piece worth also considering is the rate of increase as the professional athletes responded with more “brain gains” when compared to the amateur NCAA athletes and the non-athletes. The question, “how do I make my brain run faster?” now has a second answer. I hypothesize that professional athletes exercise their bodies more and as brain growth has been shown to be positively enhanced by the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) (called by Dr John Ratey ‘miracle grow for the brain’), it is the effect exercise has on the brain which causes faster adaptation and greater neuroplasticity. 

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