Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Consider the Brain as Physical and the 22nd C Trainer may be a Warrior Teaching Nun

Our brains are physical. Like a leg, an eyeball, a heart.
Our brains are physical.
and really complex.
SO how do we train the physical brain?

Philosophia: how do you work out?
I'll suggest below that the physical brain requires three types of training: (1) physical (cardio vascular/mitochondria building related); (2) sensory-motor training and - wait for it - (3) deep, expert conversation. I'll make the case that this latter component has been demonstrated compellingly in a very long standing study on brain disease.

Some coaches/trainers are versed in type one training. Some folks carry out type 2 training -an example of this kind of practice is z-health, like i-phase, discussed in this overview. But what of type 3? of facilitating rich, complex language use, something pretty particular to humans but that has particular physical payoffs for brain function especially in later life?  Language as physical.

So this piece is an initial exploration of thinking about the brain as physical and the implications for practice and the professional practice of coaching/training holistic wellbeing/fitness.

Shall we stop the Brain/Body division in our Language?

The brain is physical
That to me is just wild - it's an integral part of a physical being - not where the body is an inconvenient attachment to the brain, or conversely where the brain has no real role in our workouts beyond keeping track of the number of reps we're at in a set.

So if the brain is a part of our body (yes) how do we train the brain for its physical well being? If we have cardio-vascular workouts what are ensephalo workouts?

How Train The Brain - For its Physical Well Being?

For some reason it is not initially easy for me to grok seeing the brain like the heart in terms of training. Let's look at this: i mean, when we think of our body, do we think of our brains as part of that, or as something separate from the body? As in, there's the brain and there's the body? How often do we hear that phrase? "The brain/body."

This separation of brain/body is likely not a good idea. When we make this separation, we tend to ignore that our brains need physical support, just like the rest of our physical being. If it's a wee bit of a challenge for you to see the brain in the same context as the heart or lungs, i get it. Maybe this will help: you might say well the heart and lungs benefit from aerobics - they thrive on blood and oxygen so exercise for the heart and lungs - makes sense.  But brain damage occurs from the deprivation of oxygen to the brain. Physical well being benefits the brain, too.

But it seems there are also some special kinds of practice that the brain's particular functions benefit from that are more cognitive than physical, BUT that have physical - both brain and body - pay offs. As we'll see - this special kind of workout may need those of us who coach to reconsider just how holistic are our approaches - we may not be as, well, smart, in our coaching as we may have thought we are?

So let's take it from the top again. Our brains are part of our bodies. And just like the rest of our bodies, they're plastic.That means they adapt; they can reshape and hold that new shape. And just like the rest of the body, the brain is a use it or lose it system. And just like the rest of our body, our brains benefit from working out.  But our brains seem to need *two* types of working out.
One: We usually think of our brains for our smarts, our cognitive performance. That cognitive performance simply improves by our activity level. If you really want to get into the research around this fact, take a look at the second half of this tech report called "burn the chair." My favorite take away here is that according to the results of a very large, compelling study (the whitehall cohort study), being sedentary over time does in fact make us stupid. or stupid-er. Movement is important for cognition.  Move; be smarter.  
Two: it seems from long term research looking at brains of nuns who have willed their brains to science  (work aptly called the Nun Study, overview from WIRED here) that idea density is related to the plasticity and resilience of the brain itself. Idea density is a now pretty standard psychological measure of the number of propositions used to express a concept. Roger Martin has a lovely piece from 1996 to explain the idea density concept.  
A bottom line from the nun study work: poorer/simpler language skills earlier in life seems to be strongly correlated to a significantly higher risk of dementia and Alzheimers. One of the ways the researchers saw this resilience was not just in the live, life-time testing of cognitive performance between the nuns, but also looking at their actual, physical brains, post-mortem. What they saw were brains that physically LOOKED like the brains were in a state of dementia, BUT many nuns showed no SIGNS of dementia.  The ones who did not seem to have had the higher idea density/richer language skills. 

In other words, language practice - not what we think of as a physical thing - builds physical properties / disease defences for the brain. At least we know about the disease defences now - but what else that is also "unseen" until post mortem - and plainly there's much we're not yet "seeing" in these disembodied brains - like how they can appear diseased but not perform as such? Basically: the abstract practice of language takes place in physical space - in the tissues of the brain - and has substantial benefit to whole person performance. WOW.

Personally, i would also like to know who of these nuns actually were the more physically active and how that maps to the results, too. Did they garden or did they play a field sport or ride a bike?  Would the same results around idea density be found with accomplished dancers, athletes or artists? Or is there something particular about language, for which our brains seem particularly adapted in so many ways (language centers specifically, for instance) that requires this particular skill to reduce these brain risks?

Nudging the Physical Brain via Intellectual/Cognitive Skills Practice

The suggestion from the ongoing results from the Nun Study (and there is tons of work since it started in 1986) when combined with all the work  in the physical / cognitive performance space overviewed in Burn the Chair suggests that we need good dolops of both physical movement and intellectual engagement (specifically in language) for the ongoing health of our brains, that very physical part of our bodies.

And like other physical practice, language skills/language expression can be practiced, too. We never stop adapting: we can get better what we practice physically and intellectually.  One way to practice nudging ourselves in language: we can go deeper into developing our expertise on a topic. We don't stop there; we re-present that information; we practice explain it.  The ability to express something at a more expert level is part of assessing idea density (pdf of paper).

Kandel's Principles of Neural
Science, new 5th edition,
 fabulous text
for beginner and expert
to look at this topic.
(US/ UK)
In wellbeing there are so many topics where we can go deeper into our knowledge of practice: nutrition, physiology, anatomy, neurology itself. Like picking an exercise program, we don't have to get the "right" topic, we just need to start.

And practice.

And perhaps step up from time to time.

We know how in physical practice, there are competitions: team challenges, individual lifting competitions, etc, where we can test ourselves from time to time? Same thing with intellectual work. We can do courses with exams; collaborate on paper writing, give a guest lecture for a class - or a group - we just need to  make sure there's a bona fide expert in the room who will be able to assess how credible we are, and how well we handle questions.

We can improve our performance in these scenario by getting our heart rates up before a performance/test and by sipping water throughout - but that's for another post.

The main thing - our brains are physical - need reps just like the rest of us; they just need - it seems -  two kinds: they need physical and cognitive stimulation.

How do we do that? Working the good ol' sagittal plane may just not be enough.

The Future of Physical Culture - includes the physical brain

The point of this post? In our physical training, we get very good about training a lot of the body. When we remember that we need to train all of it - including the brain, just like the heart and the lungs - we have a new opportunity and possibly requirement for pushing our practice to affect our brains physical wellbeing. That's amazing.

So in 2013, if we're coaches, how are we going to bring brain-as-part-of-the-body assessment into our client history? If we're coaches, how will we coach brain health? how coach improvement for idea density? If we are our own coaches, how will we develop a program to support this?

Some considerations for Holistic Physical Brain Training

Part 1 - Trad "Physical Health/Movement" Physical stimulation of the brain may mean both creating an optimal healthy environment for the brain - so movement works here.

Part 2 - More of the Brain Engaged -  But to start to get engagement with as much of the brain as possible - so that it does fire on all cylinders we may want to explore greater ranges of full on sensory stimulation: visual, vestibular, proprioceptive - this means working just the good ol sagittal plane may be missing greater brain engagement. In my experience, so far, Z-Health (faq) has the most developed systems for approaching this encephalo-aspect of brain as part of the body training. If you're not familiar with Z-Health, there's a swath of articles here about various aspects of the approach.

Part 3 -  As for those components of language enervation shown in the nun study to be able to overcome the physical deterioration of the brain that usually signifies cognitive deterioration, one might be tempted to say well that's the role of a classical education is it not? Where learning to think and to speak well, to converse intelligently is not a sign of snootery but in what we see here, physical resilience.  But if we're coaches we're not grades school teachers; and we're not ph.d's.

Hmm. Some of us are. That aside, imagine if we were - if not ph d's -  at least licensed professionals rather than weekend certified quacks that most of us are. But even that aside, what if that new licensed, registered profession took into account not just the physical training of strength or fitness, not just the sensory motor development of the brain/body connection, but also took into account this intellectual as physical development of the brain for our longitudinal health, not just the today look in the mirror health.

A good education indeed includes all these aspects. Perhaps we just haven't had all this physical evidence to prove and thus tweak the connections between these components, but it's overwhelming isn't it, that quality of life - of long life - demands it?

As coaches, how many of us really think long term about our clients? Or are we often forced to be politicians, to focus on the current term/session, rather than the lifetime of the client?

Nuns and Monks; The 22nd Century Trainer as Mendicant Warrior Teachers?

This last section has not been meant as a criticism of any individual or for that matter any current training qualification program: it's a critique of our practice. What are we really doing here? How are we trained to do it? What is acceptable to us as clients? If we can barely stand to work out on our own or with a trainer for an hour, what is wrong with us? If as a trainer we wants to minimize sessions to less than an hour what's wrong with us?

Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away, when education was important, the curriculum included physical and intellectual practice. Throughout history, the great innovators have been - i'm convinced - people who have been both physical and intellectual if not a bit spiritual.

Maybe if we were to create a profession - one where the trainer is as respected as the doctor or whomever is respected these days - the concept of trainer would disappear (and really what does that tell us that our culture has evolved a job like "trainer"? ) - and we would be back to educators. But instead of having a Physics teacher AND a PE teacher, what if they were the same? If students would have to know these subjects why not the teachers?

And as we moved through life, we would keep up our health and our intellectual practice that we learned in school - because school wouldn't be a prison or just a party,  but would be where we learned to feel the best we could possibly feel because we would know ourselves. We could use assessments whether EEG's of our brains during sleep or step counters or ph strips to understand ourselves and tune ourselves and our social encounters to be better. Converse, play an instrument, read, speak well, do science, do ourselves.

What can i say - i've seen cloud atlas, the movie: the future might be very interesting looking. Education may make a come back.

Ok, i'll stop there. THis article was going to be a review of health and wellbeing books i've enjoyed in 2012 - and then this happened.  Thanks for listening. will be keen to hear your thoughts.

A challenge? There are some challenges for new kinds of training/coaching for total body, total physical health that has to involve the physical brain - that training for physical brain well being is multi-sensoral and intellectual as well as physical. I've suggested that by the 22nd C we may get how to do this right in terms of professional practice and cultural figures that will initiate these practices for us. How do we get from now to then? Can we do so in less than 100 years? How do we contribute today?

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