The common maxim that humans only use 10 percent of their brain? It’s bunk, according to Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi, coauthors of “Super Brain”, “Super Genes”, and the forthcoming book “The Healing Self.” In fact, we’re using all of our brains, all of the time. The difference is how well we’re using them, and how tweaks to our daily habits can contribute to our overall wellness.
On Thursday evening, Chopra, a doctor, author, and pioneer in integrative medicine, joined Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the vice chairman of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, for a discussion on how mindfulness, meditation, and other wellness techniques can help improve brain health, reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and promote longevity. The session, “Healthy Brain, Enlightened Brain,” was held at Faneuil Hall as part of HUBweek, a science and arts festival founded by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In an age when our brains are constantly overwhelmed with information, it can be difficult to find the time and patience to focus on ways to keep them healthy, Chopra said. “The number one epidemic in society today is stress,” he said. “We are living in a time when everyone has ‘time sickness.’ Your body constantly says, ‘We are running out of time.’ ”
That stress has a biological impact on the body and can be a drag on the brain’s overall fitness, Chopra said.
Stress and the neuroinflammation it causes in the brain can also contribute to diseases such as Alzheimer's, said Tanzi, who has been studying the genetic components of the disorder as the director of the genetics and aging research unit at Mass. General and the hospital’s new institute for brain health. Tanzi said that plaques in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer's can develop 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise in a patient.
Several studies he has conducted, some with Chopra’s help, have demonstrated that some lifestyle interventions like meditation and a vegetarian diet can help diminish the factors that might cause the disease.
Harnessing the connections between mind and body can be the first step toward managing and promoting brain health, Tanzi said, and Mass. General’s new institute for brain health is devoted to forging connections between “New Agey” practices and hard science.
“We’re testing holistic methods of lifestyle interventions and validating them,” he said. “It’s real science, rigorous science.”
Chopra said that focusing on the mind-body connection is also particularly important now, given the various stressful factors at play in the world.
“The chaos and violence and social and economic injustice and climate change,” he said, are contributing to a “social disorder” that is a constant distraction from our own self-awareness and wellness.
“The separate self does not exist, we’re all part of an ecosystem, and today that ecosystem is amplified by social media,” he said, quipping that President Trump is a particularly egregious example of someone who needs to unplug.
The best way to disconnect and help improve brain health, the pair said, is to subscribe to a paradigm they dubbed SHIELD, an acronym which instructs followers to: Sleep for eight hours.
Handle stress by using techniques like meditation. Interact with others for social stimulation. Exercise by taking at least 8,000 steps a day.
Learn new things to develop new synapses in your brain. And eat a Diet low in fat and sugar.
“Move more, learn more, sleep more, meditate more, eat better and less,” said Tanzi.
“And choose your ancestors wisely,” he joked.Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.