After achieving tenure at NYU and researching how memory works in the brain, neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki realized that her life was in the lab and her social and physical well being were suffering because of it. She wasn’t maximizing the potential of her brain because everything you do or don’t do affects the brain. She decided to do something about it – to start exercising and to get strong. She stuck to it and with hard work she started to notice the effects on her brain: her mood, memory and attention improved because of exercise. This fascinated her and has become the focus of her work as a neuroscientist. She’s now dedicated to researching the power of exercise to improve people’s learning memory and cognition.
We talk about her new book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain & Do Everything Better, how exercise affects the brain, brain hacks, brain myths and more.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University (NYU)’s Center for Neural Science. A popular speaker, she is a regular presenter at the World Science Festival and TEDx, and is frequently interviewed on television and in print for her expertise regarding the effects of exercise on brain function.
- How the incredible Professor Marian Diamond from inspired her to become a neuroscientist
- Learning about the brain is learning about yourself. Don’t you want to know why how you move, how you think and how you feel?
- Women account for 50% of student body in science grad programs but only 28% of the science faculty
- The personal experience that made her shift from researching memory to devoting her career to study of the effects of exercise
- “I was working out on a regular basis and that’s when I noticed how exercise was affecting me and my brain. My mood was better. I dealt with stress better. But my memory was also better. I was able to make associations better and my attention improved. That’s what made me sit up and notice that I’m thinking better – what is going on here?”
- Dr. Suzuki developed a course called Can Exercise Change Your Brain where she had students exercise for an hour followed by a lecture on the effects of exercise on the brain. She made that part of her first human study in which she tested all the students in the beginning and end of semester. Despite the fact that they were exercising once a week aerobically she did see significant improvements in their reaction times.
- She’s doing more research in her lab with the goal of answering fundamental questions of what is the formula? how much, what kind, how long do you need to exercise to improve your mood, memory, attention and energy.
- Dr. Suzuki’s experience with Intensati – what she refers to as intentional exercise that combines an aerobic workout with positive affirmations. She doesn’t tell everyone to do Intensati but strongly believes in the power of adding intentional thought to whatever you like to do.
- Positive affirmations affect what psychologists call your mindset – the belief system that governs what you think. We know that mindset has a powerful effect on our physiology.
- Dr. Alia Crum has done studies that demonstrate how mindset affects physiology. If you think you’re eating a low cal milkshake your hunger hormones will go down less than If you think you’re eating a high calorie milkshake even if it has the same calories.
- “I think these kinds of intentional exercise activities are so powerful. It takes advantage of both directions of the mind body connection.”
What the hippocampus is and how exercise affects it:
- The hippocampus is a structure in the brain that’s critical for our ability to form new long term memories.
- Studies in rodents shows that when rodents are given increased exercise with running wheels it increases neurogenesis (birth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus
- “It doesn’t matter how old you are. Exercise beefs up the birth of these new brain cells. These new brain cells are the ones that are most engaged as we learn new things. By exercising you’re getting more of the cells that are better suited to learn new things. When you don’t exercise you have a minimal amount of those new cells coming in.”
- Stress can damage the hippocampus – exercise protects it from future stress and can reverse damage caused by long term stress.
- “These are the questions that I get. What’s the dif between yoga, kickboxing and HIIT? What’s going to give me the biggest bang for the buck in my brain? I don’t know the answer. I would love to know the answer. I’m developing programs to ask these questions.”
- Does yoga help the brain? It’s likely that yoga is doing complementary things maybe more similar to what we’ve seen with meditation. Long term meditation can decrease stress levels, increase mood, but t’s not the same as aerobic exercise. We need more studies.
Myths about the brain:
- The ultimate myth about the brain is that we only use 10% of our brains. About 70% of our brain is devoted to processing visual information alone. Auditory processing uses another percentage and any movement uses your motor system. We are using a huge proportion of our brain and if you go into a brain scanner and even sit there and think or visualize you are activating so much of your brain.
- Another myth is that right brain people are more creative and left brain people are more analytical. This isn’t true. All the studies coming out show that the most creative responses come from people that use both sides of their brain.
Effects of Meditation on the brain:
- There are a lot of observations about what meditation does, but there are not a lot of neuroscience studies on the effects of meditation on the physiology of the brain.
- Richard Davidson at University of Madison Wisconsin has championed the study of meditation and mindfulness and has collaborated with the Dalai Lama who is a big supporter of the neuroscience of meditation.
The Future of Neuroscience:
- Dr. Suzuki’s new project with an entrepreneurial company that will involve thousands of people in these exercise studies so we can monitor and measure cognitive performance as a function of exercise.
- The technology is building every day and I think it’s exciting when scientists can team with entrepreneurs to get the results out to the general public and like in my case to test critical questions in a brand new way.
[The Y&B body teasers are a play on brain teasers. The goal is to play, experiment, get us thinking about how we move and ultimately improve how we move (and breathe).]
Dr. Suzuki’s favorite exercise brain hack from her book: Have a 4-minute pillow fight with someone who agrees to it (unlike the guy in this video). It’s aerobic, makes you laugh and gives your brain a boost!
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