As many of us head towards the first anniversary of the lockdown, this podcast with Dr Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon at Emory University and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is essential listening if you want to understand what the lockdown is doing to our brains and how we can look after our mental health in 2021. Dr Gupta also highlights in his podcast his new book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age”. In case you don’t have the time to listen to the podcast, here are some interesting points from it:
  • Learn new skills, regardless of how basic these skills are, if you want to keep strengthening the circuitry of your brain: “”The act of experiencing something new — or even doing something that’s typical for you, but in a different way — can all generate these new brain cells,” says Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon and associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. “We want to constantly be using new paths and trails and roads within our brain.”
The new skill can be simple, Gupta notes. If you’re right handed, try eating with your left hand — or vice versa, if you are a lefty. If you wear a necktie, close your eyes and practice tying it in the dark. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to develop new brain pathways, Gupta says.”
  • Recent research shows that our brain can continue to grow throughout our lives – well beyond childhood: “What we’ve come to understand over the last decade is that even outside of those two conditions — just a normal life without an injury or as an adult — you can still grow new brain cells. That was a really pretty significant thing.
Before that, the brain was thought to be largely immutable, sort of fixed, and really measured only by its inputs and its outputs, a black box of sorts. We’ve obviously been able to explore the brain differently and we’ve been able to see this neurogenesis, evidence of this neurogenesis, throughout our entire lives…”
  • Sleep plays a very powerful role in how we retain and edit memories and we need 7-9 years of sleep if we want to do justice to our memory: “The brain is not at rest the way people might imagine it to be when we’re sleeping. … There are several important things that are happening. … One is, that is the time when we really do consolidate memories. So, you’ve had all these interesting experiences throughout your day — people that you’ve met, conversations you’ve had, experiences you’ve had, whatever it may be. You have these things in part because you want to remember them and add them to your life narrative.
That process of actually putting them in the memory book, if you will … really happens at the time that you sleep. That’s the “consolidation of memory” sort of phase. Some of it is actually placing the memory. Some of it is moving memories from short-term to longer-term memory and those sorts of things. So you have to be able to sleep well in order to remember well. And you also have to be able to sleep well to in order to forget well, because you want to, in order to make that life narrative as cohesive as possible….”
  • The pandemic hurts our brains by removing the cycles of stress that our brain was accustomed to when we were living pre-pandemic lives: “…stress is not necessarily the enemy. In fact, we need a certain amount of stress. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, makes us perform well on tests, hopefully, all that sort of stuff. But it is that second adjective you used — unrelenting — that is really problematic here. We need these breaks from stress. You need that constant sort of ebb and flow, and that’s what’s missing. Again, you don’t want it to all be good all the time, but you need to have that sort of up and down to some extent. …”

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