In recent decades average human life expectancy has consistently increased. However, with greater life expectancy comes greater prevalence for entire groups of diseases. While the average person used to not even live to the age at which these diseases develop, today people must take action to prevent them if they wish to remain mentally sound and not become a burden to their relatives. We spoke about this with Professor Alexey Danilov, head of the project Brain Ecology.
– Alexey, for starters, could you tell us about what Brain Ecology is and what the word “ecology” means here?
The primary idea of the Brain Ecology project is to motivate people to look at the issue of health in terms of their own capabilities. When it comes to health today, people usually strive to get high-tech medical treatment. But the World Health Organization calculated that the healthcare system’s role in our health is only 10%; 20% is determined by genetics, and the remaining 70% by our thoughts, our lives, and the environment. So that means that a doctor has much less to do with our health than what we eat, drink, and wear, what we do, what we think and where we live. As part of our project we developed a simple system, comprehensible to the average person, which shows how the things around us influence our health. That should move people to change their attitudes about their health.
Since we look at health issues as part of human interactions with the environment, here we border on a field of science like human ecology, which studies man’s relationship to nature and his changing living conditions. This is why we put the word “ecology” in the project’s name. The word “brain”, of course, is also not an accident. First, most people value their brains pretty highly. Woody Allen even has a joke that goes: “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ.” Second, the remarkable American medical doctor Daniel G. Amen wrote a book called Change Your Brain – Change Your Life – and that idea struck a chord with us. We can’t do anything with our genetics, we can’t always have an effect on politics or the weather or whatever. But we can always change ourselves and our attitude towards the world around us.
– The famous satirist Ambrose Bierce said that the brain is “an apparatus with which we think that we think.” This raises the question: what is the brain according to contemporary science?
In his later years another famous person considered to be a great thinker and philosopher said that “I know only that I know nothing.” Pretty much the same can be said about what we currently know about the brain. We are now only at the beginning of our journey toward understanding the mechanisms of its organization and actions, but there is an understanding that the brain is not an organ that we control, but rather a structure to which we ourselves are also subordinate. The brain is the onboard computer of our body – it processes all the information a person takes in, and everything depends on what the brain does with it.
Ancient scholars believed that the brain was only a large gland. Aristotle held that this “gland” produced the mucus necessary to cool the heart. One of the first to guess the brain’s true role in the body was Galen of Pergamon, doctor to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He said that the brain is the center of motion, feeling, and thought.
The brain’s work and its interaction with the body is a complex biochemical laboratory, but we can say that by changing our thinking, we can change our biochemistry and the molecular biology of our body. For example, when a person smiles sincerely, thousands of endorphins are released, which have a positive effect on not only the brain itself, but also our blood vessels, cells, the functioning of the heart and other organs. When a person is afraid, that brings on a discharge of completely different hormones, creating completely different biochemical reactions. And those affect the body negatively. So our thinking is a powerful instrument that can make us stronger, tougher, healthier, more resilient, or, the opposite, lead to disease. Our life can be good or bad, but it is our brain that determines which one it actually is. Look around and you’ll see people who, maybe, sweep streets, or live in tiny little one-room apartments, have small salaries, but they still smile, because they’re content. But there are people with the same salary but with different ideas about life who think all of that is horrible. So it’s not life itself, not facts themselves that make us happy or unhappy, but our perceptions of them which form in our brains.
– So you’re saying that we come up with our own ideals, and then we pay for that with our health?
Our health largely depends on how happy we feel. There are some countries – Bhutan, for example – where everyone walks around barefoot and lives in straw huts, but they are all perfectly happy. Unfortunately, in Western society happiness is generally measured by occupying certain positions in society, by earning a certain amount of money, by having a car and a boat. And it’s not enough to just have a boat – yours has to be a few meters longer than your neighbor’s. And if you don’t fit into that paradigm, then you automatically become a loser and a failure. And that’s where stress, arterial hypertension, and diabetes come from. Sometimes we get patients who seem to have it all, but don’t have happiness. Then they go off to Tuva to visit shamans, make campfires, live in earthen huts, become closer to nature and in two weeks they come back completely different people!
Historical trivia: after leaving office, the Roman emperor Diocletian (years of rule: A.D. 284-305) moved to an estate in Salona, where he lived in solitude for eight years. Once when his former comrades tried to convince him to return to power, he replied: “If you saw the cabbage I’ve grown, you wouldn’t be bothering me with such trifles.”
Culture and upbringing play a very important role. Grandparents, school, friends, television, and the internet – that’s the environment that shapes us and makes us healthy or unhealthy. Socio-cultural factors might underlie many diseases. For instance, the sweeping worldwide increase in obesity, which now affects one-third of children, is primarily the result of the food culture that’s forced on us: we consume food without expending the corresponding amount of energy. The flipside of that is anorexia nervosa, in which young women consider themselves to be too fat. In some other cultures – in some African ones, for example – this problem doesn’t exist at all, simply because there other body shapes are prized.
It also turns out that your health can get a boost from visiting the theater, reading a good book, or simply taking your dog for a walk in the park in the evening. Some research shows that regular walks in the park, even if only three times a week for 45 minutes, is equivalent to taking anti-depressants but without the side effects. We at Brain Ecology give scientific data on how art, culture, and education can help improve one’s health. At the end of her life the famous actress Annie Girardot suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. She couldn’t tell Pierre Richard apart from Alain Delon, but she remembered Shakespeare’s sonnets, which she had memorized in her youth, and took film roles until the final days of her life. So our cultural sophistication and intellectual potential help us cope with our illnesses, should they appear. When we do something intellectual, we increase the number of connections in our brains. When you get right down to it, the quantity and quality of connections between brain cells is what distinguishes one person from another. And if some problem arises, part of these connections can be broken, but the aftermath of the illness can be minimized thanks to those that remain. For instance, if a person knows five foreign languages, when he has a stroke he might forget three of them, but he will still be able to speak the other two as he had previously. He isn’t lost to society. Here’s another example: women say 21,000 words a day, but men say only 7,000. Consequently, women develop more neural connections. This is why with strokes affecting the left-hemisphere of the brain, speech impairments are observed in men three times as often as they are in women. By training their brains, women protect themselves against strokes.
After Einstein’s death his brain was removed and placed in a formaldehyde solution. Because Einstein was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century, scientists hoped that by studying his brain they could discover links between genius and brain anatomy. However, they discovered no such super-abilities. Einstein’s brain weighed 1230 grams, which is even less than the average weight of an adult male brain at that age, which is 1400 grams. Researchers discovered that the areas of Einstein’s brain responsible for speech and language had shrunken, while the areas responsible for processing numerical and spatial information had grown larger. At the same time, the concentration of neurons in one gram of brain tissue was greater than the average for other people. It was also established that Einstein’s brain was 15% wider than the average person’s.
Until recently we
counted on solving many of the problems we’re talking about once we completely
mapped the human genome. But it turned out that only 2-3% of diseases have a
definite genetic determinant. Most diseases – nervous diseases, cardiovascular
diseases – are polygenic in nature, which means that different genes might be
responsible for their clinical development. It has been scientifically proven
that the development of many diseases is closely tied to our way of life. This is handled by epigenetics – an area of
science that studies what happens to genes, what factors turn them on and off.
In other words, we are more or less looking for an answer to the question: “How
does a person’s lifestyle affect the chances of this or that gene ‘turning on’
or ‘turning off’?” For example, a person might be genetically predisposed to
get diabetes at the age of 55. But if he is subject to a lot of stress,
overeats to relieve that stress, and leads a sedentary lifestyle – he can speed
up that process and develop diabetes at 45. Or the opposite could take place –
it could be postponed, and then the disease strikes at 99. Today scientists are
studying those mechanisms.
– Does the brain itself age along with the body?
Yes, certain changes do take place in the brain. Among other things, blood supply to the brain worsens due to overall physiological decline. Certain neurodegenerative diseases can also appear. But it’s important to remember this: it all accumulates, and that accumulation plays the principal role. Certain factors do not harm us right away, but make themselves known when we get older. Even consuming bad food can eventually lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It’s something that builds up and then only makes itself known after 20-30 years. For that reason it’s important to start thinking about old age while you’re still young.
Very often we don’t even realize that we are harming our brain, since we associate this or that factor with completely different organs. But the brain will be sure to suffer along with those organs. When we breathe dirty air in a city center, it’s not only our lungs that suffer, but also our brains. When we wake up at 8:30 because an annoying neighbor is using a power drill, it’s not only our ears, but our brain, too, that suffers. When we have one too many, we’re harming not just our kidneys, but our brains as well. When we argue with our loved ones – the brain suffers, too. And if we just take better care of our brain, then all of our other organs will appreciate it.
Even an instrument as fine as the brain can be tricked. This is done with optical illusions – errors in visual perception caused by imprecisions in the subconscious correction of an image. One of the most well-known illusions is the Ames room. Upon entering one, people of average height seem to become either dwarves or giants. The secret of this astounding room is in the position of its walls. The wall furthest from the viewer has one acute angle and one obtuse angle.
– Why are some people able to preserve their lucidity in their final years, while many others lose it? What is the key to brain health and what needs to be done so that the brain remains young in old age?
Our project has three key points. The basis of health and longevity is proper nutrition, brain fitness, and stress management.
Food is like fuel for an automobile. But when we fill up a car with fuel, we make sure the gasoline is good and that the car works fine and doesn’t break down. But when it comes to ourselves, without a second thought we pump in low-grade leaded gasoline. Any car would break down right away, but the body can withstand it, but only for a while. In addition, nerve cells are made out of what we eat. If our nerves are coated in transfats, our brains will have certain thoughts, but if we use olive oil, then our thoughts will be completely different.
Exercising your brain is just as important as training your muscles, which is why people who are intellectually active on a regular basis live longer. Let’s remember Professor Likhachyov [a prominent Soviet academic – translator’s note], who in old age looked great, had a wonderful lucid mind, and spoke eloquently. When a person simply stops and does some thinking, that activates certain regions of the brain. Blood supply increases, the brain develops. When we do pull-ups, our biceps become more powerful – the same thing happens to the brain. Intellectual exercise might mean solving crosswords or solving everyday problems – the important thing is to do it calmly, intelligently. We can’t completely get rid of stress or avoid it, but we can learn to deal with it and even derive some pleasure from it. There are special techniques for that. They do not remove the stress factors, but they do train our brain to react differently to unpleasant stimuli.
– How effective are medicines in preventing and treating brain disorders, especially in comparison with other methods such as the brain exercises you just mentioned?
The idea behind our approach is not to set modern medicine and pharmacology in opposition to alternative methods, but rather to use them all in an integrated manner. In some situations neurosurgical operations might be essential, but sometimes we can help by doing something else. As an illustration, I’ll tell you about Tanakan, a special medicine derived from the Gingko biloba tree. It is a powerful antioxidant that is used to increase concentration, improve memory, thought, and circulation. So this medicine was used in one very interesting experiment. One group of patients was given a placebo, a second group was given Tanakan, a third a placebo plus mental gymnastics, and a fourth Tanakan plus metal gymnastics. It turned out that the placebo with mental gymnastics was slightly more effective than Tanakan. Tanakan was more effective than the placebo. But Tanakan with mental gymnastics turned out to be four times more effective than simple Tanakan, and three times more effective than mental gymnastics alone. So medication has an effect, but supplementing it with mental gymnastics increases medication’s effectiveness several times over.
In terms of physics, the eye is a fairly simple optical system. However, in accordance with the laws of optics, an inverted image forms on the retina. The image is “corrected” by our brain, which allows us to better adapt to the world around us. This does not happen immediately, though – newborns see an inverted world.
In 1896 American psychologist George Stratton designed the invertoscope (illustrated) – special glasses which project onto the retina a normal, uninverted image. Through force of habit, a person who wears them will see everything upside-down. However, if he continues to wear them constantly, after a few days his brain will adapt to reality and invert the image.
– Should the brain get rest?
This is an extremely important question, since the primary disease of civilization (if I may put it this way) is violating the work/rest cycle. It has now been shown that if a person has at least four fifteen-minute breaks, in seven hours of office work he will do more than he would during ten hours of uninterrupted work. That’s why we recommend that all offices have a stress management room where people can go for a short time to leave their surroundings, close their eyes, listen to music, take their mind off things… Then, returning to one’s desk with a new burst of energy, a person can do much more. It prevents headaches and chronic fatigue syndrome.
In some offices they even set up “sleep pods.” And if a person is given 15-20 minutes to take a nap, then after lunch he will double his productivity. And that’s worth a lot. Sleep also means good skin, good mood, and a long life.
One of the Google rest room.
– Is the saying “The best way to relax is to change what you’re doing” true for the brain?
It is, because the brain gets tired of monotony and tedium. As a child frequent changes in mental activity are even more essential. A person’s concentration cycle lasts about 15-20 minutes, although it also depends on a person’s temperament and abilities.
– In conclusion, what three recommendations can you give our readers?
Love, live honestly, and do what you love.