An Introduction to Brain and Mental Health

An Introduction to Brain and Mental Health

Who doesn’t want their brain to function well – now and into old age? To ensure healthy brain and mental health, the first step is to understand your brain and how best to work with it. Let’s start with a brief introduction to the brain, in particular the pre-frontal cortex where our highest level thinking and reasoning takes place.

The cerebral hemispheres are the largest part of the brain, making up 83% of it’s mass. They are divided into the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobes and the occipital lobe. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of grey matter only 2 – 4 mm thick, and is associated with conscious behaviour – perception, communication, remembering, understanding, appreciating, and initiating voluntary movements.

The prefrontal cortex is the anterior portion of the frontal lobe, the area of the brain behind your forehead. It’s the last major brain region to develop in humans, and although it only takes up 4 – 5% of the volume of the brain, it requires a lot of energy to function and tires with use.  It also matures slowly and is heavily dependant upon positive and negative feedback from one’s social environment. The pre-frontal cortex is closely linked to the limbic system or emotional brain, and therefore plays a role in mood.

Tumours, trauma, or damage to the pre-frontal cortex may cause wild mood swings, loss of attentiveness, and loss of judgement or inhibition.

The prefrontal cortex is considered the biological seat of your conscious mind, the part of your brain responsible for intellect, complex learning (cognition) and personality. It is also the area of the brain where more evolved thought process such as production of abstract ideas, judgement, reasoning, persistence, planning, concern for others (empathy), and conscience takes place.

The major thought functions of the pre-frontal cortex are:

  • Understanding
  • Deciding
  • Recalling
  • Memorising
  • Inhibiting

Combinations of these thought processes are required for:

  • Creative or critical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • Planning
  • Visualising
  • Communicating
  • Impulse control

A well-developed prefrontal cortex is also necessary for:

  • Empathy
  • Insight
  • The ability to choose an appropriate response (rather than react)
  • Emotional regulation
  • Morality
  • Intuition
  • Compassion, and
  • Fear modulation

The prefrontal cortex has to have everything just right or it doesn’t function well, which explains why you can’t think straight, make good decisions, or behave at your best when tired, hungry, in a stressful environment, or when you’re being constantly being interrupted or distracted.

In order to have a well functioning pre-frontal cortex, it’s important to learn to manage it well and be a strong ‘director’ of your brain, choosing carefully what you spent time thinking about or holding your attention to. Making note of things to remember saves prefrontal cortex energy, and avoiding distractions enables you to remain focussed on chosen tasks. Some of these things require practice, especially for people with a ‘busy mind’. Meditation practice can help to develop a strong ‘director’, and improve all other prefrontal cortex activities.

Ways to maximise and improve the function of your pre-frontal cortex:

  • Make sure you get a good night’s sleep
  • Practice meditation
  • Fuel your brain appropriately
  • Ensure your workplace or study environment is stress-free with appropriate lighting, not too noisy, or messy, or overcrowded
  • Write things down that you need to remember (bullet journaling is perfect for this!)
  • Be tidy and organised, have good systems and processes to save time and brain energy
  • Prioritise your tasks, and do the one thing that requires the most thought first e.g. learning a new concept, planning a project, or writing an article.
  • Focus on one thing at a time, and stick with it without interruption until it’s complete, or you need a break.
  • Turn off all distractions (switch computer and phone to DND)
  • If you find you are easily distracted, or look for distractions, practice concentrating on a task for a period of time. Set a timer to stay on task for say 20 minutes to begin with, and increase the time gradually until you can stay focussed for longer
  • Give yourself a short break (5 – 15 minutes) to do ‘mindless’ tasks – make a drink, have a quick walk around the office or block, have a chit-chat or send a message to a friend or colleague, stare out the window, or watch a short YouTube clip. Try to avoid getting caught up in Facebook or an internet search that can draw your attention for half an hour or more.

Have a snack to re-fuel your brain. When I was teaching herbal medicine students, I would encourage them to eat during class if it helped them to stay focussed and learn better.

As mentioned previously, the prefrontal cortex functions best when everything is just right. Aside from not looking after your own wellbeing, feeling stressed or threatened in any way can significantly affect your ability to think clearly, or creatively, or be able to concentrate. Your sense of judgement is inhibited, and your ability to think before speaking is impaired, therefore you have less ability to be empathetic or understanding of other people and their situation. In a workplace, family, or social environment, this can cause serious problems.  Therefore learning how to get along with and work well with other people is an important skill to learn for optimal brain function and productivity.

This is just an introduction to good brain function, which will help you to reduce stress, improve mental health, brain performance and productivity, which will result in greater happiness and satisfaction with life.

References: Your Brain at Work – David Rock, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology – Marieb

Helen is a registered medical herbalist and naturopath with 15 years clinical and teaching experience. She aims to help her clients to create vibrant health through improved nutrition and better lifestyle practices, and uses herbal medicines to support healing processes. Her philosophy on health is to keep it simple and find easy ways to fit 'being healthy' into your life.

Helen is passionate about health and wellbeing, and understands metabolism and weight management as a holistic practice - working with physical, mental and emotional aspects of health, weight and body image.

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