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It's Never Too Late for the Brain
By: Jim Hodges

It seems easy. Obvious even. Most of us know what we need to do for inner peace. To relieve stress. To live a happier life. Some of us even believe we're doing the right things.

Mike Verano.

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Mike Verano from the REACH Employee Assistance Program, presented "The Blissful Brain: The Neuroscience of Feeling Good" to a group at NASA Langley during Safety and Health Awareness Week (SHAW). Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Are we?

Mike Verano offered a scenario that seems to satisfy one of the means to that personal satisfaction – faith – but then you get to the rest of the story. You're leaving a church service, at peace with the world, and get into your car.

"It's all making sense to you, and your heart feels open," Verano said Tuesday before an overflow crowd in a meeting room in the Reid Conference Center. "You're thinking, 'I am going to love my fellow man.'

"And then you're in the parking lot, trying to get home to watch the ball game and your fellow man cuts you off."

Everyone seeks happiness, said Verano in a talk called "The Blissful Brain: The Neuroscience of Feeling Good."

"But we're not patient," he added. "Instant gratification is the way we are wired."

Steps toward personal tranquility are really investments in the future and, like most investments, take time to pay off.

"No habit is broken by one try," Verano said.

And all of those steps are based on the concept of "neuroplasticity" – that the brain can be improved as we age.

"The idea that we used to have, that our brains are fixed at a certain age and that's all we get for the rest of our lives, that it's all downhill from there, is not true," Verano said. "Our brains continue to change, to adapt to our experiences. So it's never too late. The neurons that fire together, wire together, which means that the more you do or experience something, you literally are hard-wiring your brain around that experience."

He listed some positive experiences that can affect the brain, with some qualifications and explanations for each:

1. Smile and your brain smiles with you.

"Your brain chemically changes when you smile," Verano said.

But that smile must be genuine, not cosmetic. It's the smile that comes from watching your kid get a hit in a Little League game or bringing home a straight-As report card.

2. Use it or lose it.

"Intellectual and cognitive stimulation strengthens the neural connections we have to communicate and solve problems needed for rational behavior," Verano said.

But that use should be fun and not stressful. You're trying to relieve stress, not add to it.

3. Give it a rest.

"Cortisols, which are released in stress, literally shrink your brain," Verano said. "A calm mind allows the brain to rejuvenate. Give yourself a chance to relax."

4. Bored to life.

Perhaps the oddest of the suggestions is to yawn. Yes, yawn, even if you're faking it.

"If you don't do anything else I tell you, you have to try this," Verano said. "This is one of the surest ways to bring relaxation to your body."

Yawning, understood to be a sign of fatigue or boredom, "is actually cooling off your brain," he added.

5. Don't agitate, meditate.

"Meditation is not what most people think it is," Verano said, citing what he called "snake-oil" claims that the skill is a cure-all.

"Essentially, we're trying to release ourselves from mind stress. We're not trying to stop thinking. We're practicing allowing thinking to go on without being entertained by it. We want to be with ourselves in the moment – experiencing it without thinking about it."

6. Put your heart into it.

Aerobic exercise isn't just for the heart. It slows the loss of brain tissue and repairs neurological damage caused by stress.

"Talking with another person challenges the brain's activity," Verano said. In essence, it's brain exercise.

7. See the glass as all the way full.

"Optimists live longer, and they're happier while their doing it," Verano said. "And have a little faith. The experience of understanding that there is something greater than yourself is good."

In all of that, Verano offers hope, because bad habits accumulated in life can be changed to good habits by proper training of the brain.

"Anybody who has ever tried to break a life-long habit, one that you knew wasn't good for you, quit smoking, lose weight, start jogging, whatever it is, knows that you're not just fighting your will, you're fighting your brain," he said.

"The bad news is that the brain doesn't care whether the habit is good or bad. But the good news is that we can interrupt that process at any time by changing what we're thinking about, by having new experiences, by having those neurons firing together to dismantle that wire."


The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman