A study of 460 study participants (aged 22-35) from the Human Connectome Project, reported in Nature Neuroscience found a single, stark difference in the way human brains were connected—based on an abundance of positivity or negativity in their lives. In comparing fMRI brain scans to data collected on approximately 280 behavioral, demographic, and psychometric traits—such as the person’s age, whether they have a history of drug use, their socioeconomic status and personality traits, and their performance on various intelligence tests—researchers found that positive traits and conditions vastly improved brain connectivity and functioning.
What They Found
In analyzing the results, the scientists found that brain connectivity patterns could be aligned in a single axis, with one end associated with “positive traits” (such as higher education, stronger physical endurance, above-average performance on memory tests, verbal acuity, higher income levels) and the other associated with “negative traits” (such as poverty, lack of education, poor reading skills, smoking, aggressive or anti-social behavior, a family history of alcoholism, poor sleep quality).
Not so surprisingly, they found that the participants on the “positive” side of the axis reflected stronger connectivity between brain networks associated with higher cognitive functions, including memory, language, introspection, and imagination. Because they also had stronger overall connections, their brains were able to communicate more efficiently than the brains of participants at the negative end of the axis.
So what does this mean for you?
It means that the more you work on bolstering brain capacity, as well as a positive attitude and positive personality traits, the stronger your brain’s connectome—internal brain connections and communications—will likely become.
7 Ways You Can Bolster Brain Connectivity
- Read complex works. Reading books or other materials that require you to think, contemplate, and struggle to understand what’s being said or explained generates new neurons, increases neuronal connections, and speeds up mental processing. Verbal acuity acquired through extensive reading, one of the positive traits identified in the study, also bolsters connectivity. So read extensively, read out of your comfort zone, and study and analyze unfamiliar topics.
- Learn to play a musical instrument. Particularly if you’ve never played a musical instrument, the cognitive and physical coordination required to learn offers an amazing workout for your brain. Neuroscientists have also found that the association of motor actions with specific sounds and visual patterns leads to the formation of new neural networks, which boosts overall brain connectivity. It also improves bilateral connectivity, which has been shown to play a role in how well an aging brain continues to function.
- Learn to speak a foreign language. This not only forces your brain to think harder than it’s likely had to think for eons, it requires memory expansion and the ability for your brain to shift from thinking to speaking in another language, which is a complex activity that stimulates your brain.
- Bolster your memory. Expansive, well-functioning memory was one of the traits on the study’s positive axis because it’s vital to how well your brain handles cognitive tasks. To remember anything, your brain has to communicate across vast distances. Thus, anything you do to expand your memory, such as memorizing poetry, will bolster connectivity in your brain’s prefrontal parietal network, which will also help an aging brain. The use of Mnemonic devices, such as visualization, imagery, spatial navigation, and rhythm and melody, are fun ways to bolster memory.
- Take up a hobby that involves new thinking and physical coordination. New activities always stimulate your brain, and if they involve cognition, memory, and physical coordination, they will stimulate both sides of your brain. Quilting, knitting, woodworking, landscape photography, learning to sketch architecture, making art, or ballroom dancing are all activities that would boost connectivity.
- Travel. Going new places and getting out of your comfort zone (safely) always stimulates your brain. Learn and use phrases, study the culture, rely on an old-fashioned map or your memory to get around, and walk vigorously. If you can’t travel abroad, travel locally.
- Exercise regularly and vigorously for 30 minutes at a time. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that exercising vigorously for 30 minutes improved brain plasticity (neural growth), led to an improvement in memory and motor skill coordination, and increased the thickness and density of white matter, the material that connects different regions of the brain, which improves memory and boosts attention span and cognitive efficiency.
Obviously, meditating on a regular basis, one of the best activities for overall connectivity, and engaging in activities that force your brain to think, concentrate, organize, analyze, remember, contemplate, learn, imagine, and relax will all boost brain functioning. The harder you require your brain to work, the greater connectivity you’ll develop. And whatever you do, do it full throttle, with a positive outlook, concentration, and passion.
What Writers Can Do Specifically
For writers, in particular, continually “educating your brain” by studying and analyzing the craft of writing, reading extensively, reading more complex works, researching topics related to what you’re writing, brainstorming ideas before writing, and employing more cognitive concentration (time spent focused on thinking) before you write will all boost connectivity around writing, and the project you’re working on.
Fire Up Your Writing Brain: To boost your brain’s connectivity, spend 15 minutes before you begin to write brainstorming on what you’re going to write. Give your brain free rein to come up with ideas, jotting down thoughts, words, dialogue, setting notes, a scene list, or whatever springs to mind. This will spark neuronal connections and strengthen the connectome related to whatever you’re currently writing.