It’s an unfortunate reality that most of us function on a day-to-day basis with just a small percentage of our brain’s true processing power.
This means that you can’t solve problems as quickly, talk to other people as intelligently, work as productively, or perform complex movements.
What if I told you there was an exercise you could do that is now being proven by neuroscientists to enhance the way your brain operates?
It’s one of the easiest and most natural exercises you can do.
What is the exercise?
Running. That’s right, the activity that never fails to clear your mind.
Do you have a creative block that seems stuck? Go for a run.
Are you making a life altering decision? Go for a run.
Are you feeling sad, mad or out of energy? Go for a run.
Whatever you do, go for a run.
What explains the seemingly magical impact of going for a run?
The author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote in a column for the New York Times that “in running the mind feels with the body … in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.”
Filmmaker Casey Neistat told Runner’s World that running is the only thing that gives him clarity of mind:
“Every major decision I’ve made in the last eight years has been prefaced by a run.”
Perhaps Monte Davis phrased it best as quoted in the 1976 book The Joy of Running:
“It’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time. Also, there are those hours of clear-headedness that follow a long run.”
Going for a good run can make you feel like a completely new person. As it turns out, this feeling may be grounded in science.
Almost three decades of neuroscience research has identified a link between aerobic exercise and cognitive clarity. The reason is due to neurogenesis.
It used to be that the brightest minds in neuroscience thought that our brains had a set amount of neurons, and that by adulthood our total amount of neurons was fixed.
It turns out this isn’t true. Recent studies in animals have shown that new neurons are produced in the brain throughout their lifespan, and only one activity is demonstrated to trigger the birth of these new neurons: vigorous aerobic exercise.
The new cells show up in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. This could explain why so many studies have identified a link between aerobic exercise and improvement in memory.
According to Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology: “If you are exercising so that you can sweat – about 30 to 40 minutes – new brain cells are being born. And it just happens to be in that memory area.”
Increased activity after long runs is also seen in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is sometimes called the frontal executive network system. After about 30 to 40 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity – enough to make you sweat – studies have shown increased blood flow to this region. This part of the brain is also associated with many of the attributes we associate with “clear thinking”: planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting and time management.
This area is also linked with emotional regulation, which may help to explain the results of one recent study conducted by Harvard psychology PhD candidate Emily E. Bernstein.
Like Postal, Bernstein is also a runner and was curious about a pattern she saw in her own mind after a run. She said: “I notice in myself that I just feel better when I’m active.” She started to become interested in this after regularly feeling good, but wanted to find out what exactly the exercise is doing.
To find out, she performed a version of a classic experiment among researchers who study emotion. With Richard J. McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard, she played a tearjerker of a movie clip: the final scene of the 1979 film The Champ.
Take a look at the clip below and see if you can resist crying.
Before watching the film clip, half of the 80 participants were made to jog for 30 minutes and the others just stretched for this amount of time. Bernstein kept them busy for 15 minutes after that and surveyed them about how they were feeling. Those who had done the 30 minute run were more likely to have recovered from the emotional gut-punch than those who had just stretched.
Her results showed that those who had completed the 30 minute run were more resilient and able to manage their emotions.
There’s another major mental benefit to gain from running that scientists haven’t yet managed to explain: the wonderful way your mind drifts to different places while you’re running.
Mindfulness, or being in the here and now, can bring a lot of good to your life as backed by an ever growing stack of research. Yet mindlessness – daydreaming, or getting lost in your own thoughts – is important too.
Consider this argument taken from a 2013 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:
“We mind wander, by choice or by accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us to finally understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighted against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.”
Even if the benefits of losing yourself in your own thoughts are not easily measured doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. And there are few more reliable ways to induce this state of mind than running.
As the writer Haruki Murakami noted in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, sometimes he thinks, sometimes he doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter. “I just run. I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”