10 Exercises for Your Prefrontal Cortex

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The brain has the amazing ability to change and improve itself. Peak brain development[1] times occur in the early years (0-3), and again between the ages of twelve and twenty-four.  We now know that humans also have the ability to continue to  improve brain function throughout life. The part of the brain that is key to reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, impulse-control, creativity and perseverance is the prefrontal cortex. These functions (called Executive Functions) are needed when we have to focus and think, mentally play with ideas, use our short-term working memory, and think before reacting in any situation.  

Evidence exists that a well-developed prefrontal cortex with strong Executive Functions can improve both academic and life outcomes. But very little sweat need be associated with “exercising” our prefrontal cortex. What it takes is intentional use and practice of the Executive Functions. The fun part is that the workout is most effective when you feel socially supported, happy, relaxed and are physically fit.

The following are 10 “exercise” choices for a prefrontal cortex workout.

  1. Put on your rose coloured glasses. Create a positive future story; optimism is associated with rising levels of dopamine which engages the brain.


  2. Follow a sleep routine. At the end of the day, choose a pleasant activity that brings your day to a peaceful end. Getting adequate sleep is connected with memory function.[2]


  1. Deny the drama and avoid getting caught up in gossip, what-if's and theatrical reactions (other people’s too). Drama fires up the amygdala that gets the prefrontal cortex off its game.


  2. Move your body with sports, dance, martial arts, yoga[3] or other active pursuits.


  1. Find ways to express your gratitude. Gratitude activities increase positive emotions[4] which then activates the prefrontal cortex.


  1. Offer and receive physical contact.  Give and take hugs to literally soothe the brain[5] with calming inhibitory peptides.


  1. Create silly sentences, acronyms and cartoons to help remember things. These skills call on the prefrontal cortex and Executive Functions to access working memory. By integrating jokes, riddles and puns you can also learn to think flexibly by shifting between different meanings and associations of words.


  2. Play! Make-belief play[6], in particular strengthens Executive Functions.


  1. Be of service and volunteer. The social and mental activity required sends blood rushing to the prefrontal cortex[7].


  1. Learn to juggle. Learning any new and engaging activity fires off neurons in a positive way. Other activities that require focus and practice such as dancing, circus arts, music, theatre and sports[8] are predicted to significantly strengthen Executive Function.

 

In his book, Brainstorm, Dan Siegel discusses the accelerated brain changes during adolescence. Follow the link to watch him explain what is happening in the brain during the teen years.

In a University of California, Berkeley, study, participants improved their memory test scores by 10% when they repeated the test after having a nap. (Non-nappers saw a 10% decline in their scores). The researchers explain this phenomenon with an email analogy: “new facts enter your brain like e-mails arriving in your in-box. And as your in-box can overflow over the course of a day, so can your brain. During sleep, your brain shuffles recently received data into storage, creating space for fresh info.”

Sports benefit Executive Function by:

  • improving fitness,
  • requiring sustained attention,
  • demanding use of the working memory and disciplined action.

In addition, joy, pride, and social bonding enhance neural activity.

A review of the literature in positive psychology reveals the efficacy of gratitude interventions to improve happiness.

Follow the link to watch author and psychologist Dan Seigel describe the brain under stress and how we can help manage strong emotions by soothing the prefrontal cortex with neural peptides. 

Tools of the Mind is an evidence-based preschool program linked to approaches that improve Executive Function. The philosophy emphasizes mature make-believe play as a key source of development in early childhood with the following characteristics:

  • Children play well-defined roles and follow the rules for how to act when playing a particular role (e.g., the “doctors” acts in a specific way, the “patients” act in another way).

  • Children use props and can invent props when they don’t have them.

  • Children create a pretend scenario.

  • Children can play for a long time and may act out a single scenario for hours and continue building on it for days.

  • Children use language extensively. They discuss who they are each going to be and what will happen during the play. 

 

A Johns Hopkins study found that older women volunteered as tutors for six months developed sharper cognitive skills.

At Oxford University, researchers taught people to juggle and found the prefrontal cortex of the jugglers had a higher density of white matter (the fibers that let neurons communicate) after six weeksAny new physical challenge that is practiced intently will likely have this effect.

Watch researcher Adele Diamond discuss dance, music, martial arts and circus performance as effective ways to strengthen Executive Function.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.