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10 Things Your Mother Never Told You about “Brain Clutter” & Meditation

10 Things Your Mother Never Told You about “Brain Clutter” & Meditation
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Yes, it’s true; what your mother never told you about “brain clutter”… and meditation, is a lot. How could she have known that your fast-paced world would be inundated with exponentially increasing amounts of information with little time to process it all? That, with so much to do, texting, e-mails, twitter, friends to answer, places to be, and then making a living – it’s easy to become distracted and lose sight of what’s most important. That over time our brains, like two-car garages that no longer leave room for cars, can accumulate a lot of unneeded junk we call “brain clutter.”  

Neuroscientists at Princeton University have discovered that too much physical clutter around us competes for our attention, lowers performance, and increases stress. Likewise, inside the brain – too much mental clutter produces behavioral symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) plus physiological symptoms of stress, complete with chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Chronically elevated levels of this stress hormone detract from learning and memory, lower immunity, decrease bone density, increase weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and even shrink the brain. Chronic stress lurks large as Public Enemy No. 1, Cause For Disease.  

Just as too much physical mess around can provoke feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed, a cluttered mind causes overload and worry. Mental clutter thwarts creativity, stifles productivity, and can spin us off on counterproductive orbits. Seniors are especially susceptible. #1 on the MOST WANTED list of culprits responsible for brain clutter is multi-tasking.

The Myths of Multi-tasking

“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task, and their subsequent task performance suffers.” – Sophie Leroy, University of Minnesota

“Contrary to common beliefs, the brain has a limited processing capacity. It can only effectively process about one percent of the visual information that it takes in,”  – Dr. Julio Martinez-Trujillo, McGill University

A 2011 study at the University of Utah analyzed the multi-tasking abilities of 310 college students including their capacities to use a cellphone while driving. Personality traits of each student, such as impulsivity and desire to seek sensations, were compared with their individual abilities to multi-task. One of several interesting conclusions – “people who actually scored well on the multitasking tests were the ones least likely to actually multitask.”  Psychology professor David Sanbonmatsu concluded, “One of the main reasons people multitask is because they think they are good at it. But our study suggests people rarely are as good at multitasking as they think they are.”

“The people who multitask tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities, and they tend to be less capable of multitasking,” explains  fellow psychology professor and researcher and David Strayer. In his study of students using cell phones while driving Strayer found that, “ninety-eight percent of people can’t multitask—they don’t do either task as well.”  

In fact, research shows that that multitasking leads to inefficiency and sub-par work, not to mention stress. If multitasking doesn’t produce the benefits we think it does, why do so many people believe in it as a gift? “There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive,” says  Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University and the researcher for the Journal of Communication. “But they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

Keeping an Open Mind – How Do “Supertaskers” Do It?

“When you are young, your brain is able to strengthen certain connections and weaken certain connections to make new memories,” – Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia.

As we gain in experience, some might call it “growing older,” keeping an open mind means throwing out unused information and making room for the new and useful. Tsien’s research shows that this discarding process becomes more challenging with age. The same is true for discarding patterns of behavior that don’t serve us well. In order to bring in new and more relevant information, behaviors, awareness, and perspective the mind must “selectively forget”  unnecessary information – and emotions, too. Junk from the past competes with a focus on the present and keeping an open mind toward the future.

Normally, we throw out our mental garbage automatically and unconsciously, mostly in our sleep. Every night, especially during REM sleep, while we consolidate the memories most important to us we are also “selectively forgetting.”  The 100 billion neurons of the brain collectively decide what’s important, what’s not, and what’s so traumatic it should be blocked out entirely. In spite of the brain’s astonishing unconscious ability to clean house while we snooze, we can also overload, hoarding away what we’d be better off forgetting.

But tolerance for “brain clutter” is different for everyone and much like walking into someone else’s living room. What one guest might consider neat and clean, another might shriek at as a total disaster. Somehow, information overload that distresses 98% of us, causing all kinds of distractions and impediments, doesn’t bother 2% of us in the least. David Strayer at the University of Utah did neuroimaging and genetic evaluation of this group he calls “Supertaskers,”  and found that the region of their frontal cortex, that region most specific to humans, was different from the other 98% of us. “These brain regions that differentiate supertaskers from the rest of the population are the same regions that are most different between humans and nonhuman primates.”  If “Supertaskers” have different brains, designed to handle oceans of information, do they represent the most recent adaptation of human evolution?

To find out, Strayer put supertaskers through a battery of tests. Sure enough, he found a brain structure in supertaskers that looks different than the other 98 percent of us. In other words, the brains of supertaskers are just that much further away from those of apes. “The leading edge of evolution,” says Strayer. Specifically: “Certain parts of the frontal cortex are recruited in an interesting way.”  In fact, “these areas show less activity when multitasking than do the same areas in normal, human, mammalian, non-alien-overlord brains like mine.”

“If you’re a supertasker, you know it. Please feel free to continue reading this post on your smartphone or tablet while you drive one-handed and one-eyed down the freeway.”  

But for the 98% of us non-supertaskers, the scientific evidence is clear: If you want things done right, do one thing at a time, do it well, and finish before you start the next. You’ll feel healthier and your brain will feel uncluttered. For most of us, three days in nature, as a timeout from processing overwhelm, restores worn-out neurons in our frontal lobes and we feel refreshed and replenished.  “After three days, you start to experience radically different thoughts,” says Strayer.

Our Thinking Transforms Our Neuroanatomy!

“Sometimes you have to let everything go—purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything—whatever is bringing you down—get rid of it. Because you will find that when you are free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.” – Tina Turner

Incredible as it may sometimes seem we decide what we think and when to think it. Moreover, both what we decide to think and the amounts of what we’re thinking, or not thinking, actually changes our neuroanatomy.

From research about “brain clutter,” we know that “filter neurons” in the dorsolateral regions of the prefrontal lobes (DLPFC) work around the clock to select and filter out huge amounts of information. The DLPFC region appears to serve as a decision-making center, using what we already know to make choices about the future.

From research about “selective forgetting,” we also know that our subconscious decides what to remember and eliminates information we no longer believe is useful. Both consciously and subconsciously, we decide what to think and what weight to give each thought. Which is when things start to happen anatomically. When the way we think, and what we’re thinking creates neuroplasticity, new growths of trillions of dendrites, dendritic spines, and synaptic connections. The importance, effort, and challenge of what we’re thinking direct the maturation of the 700+ neural stem cells born every day in the hippocampus. Uncluttering the mind also promotes a cornucopia of anatomical changes.

Using MRI Imaging, Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School  found that after 8 weeks of meditation the subjects of her study, novice meditators, showed significant anatomical differences in

1.) the posterior cingulate – which maintains focus and awareness,

2.) the left hippocampus – involved with emotional learning and memory,

3.) the temporoparietal junction – associated with empathy and compassion,

4.) the pons – which regulates basic moods, and

5.) the amygdala – an important center for anger, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response.

Not surprising then, that two different forms of meditation would produce two different effects on brain anatomy. “We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology. “Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

During meditation, brain waves called alpha rhythm begin to prevail. A predominance of alpha rhythm “turns down the volume” of information stimulation, which then promotes neural growth, more diverse thinking, creativity, and lasting changes in behavior, too.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says researcher Britta Hölzel of Giessen University, Germany.


Gateway to the Subconscious: Change Your Brain, Change Your World

A regular practice of yoga, meditation, walking, or anything that improves mindfulness will cause lasting changes, new connections, and new pathways in the brain. Any activity, or non-activity, that sustains alpha rhythm helps eliminate the mental banter, chatter, and brain clutter that often works its way into our lifestyles and detracts from our health. The good news for multitaskers: Sara Lazar’s research shows that a regular practice of mindfulness will change your brain, help you stay on task longer, switch tasks less, and have fewer negative emotions while working.

Like biochemist, Sondra Barrett says in Secrets of Your Cells,“Our cells are more than just fortuitous arrangements of chemicals. They are a community of trillions of sentient entities cooperating to create a sanctuary for the human soul.”  The good news for everyone: cleaning up the clutter in your mind improves your health, clarifies your thinking, helps edit your priorities, raises your awareness, and makes your world a better place – And, you can do all of this in just eight weeks.


Categories:   Brain Clutter, Brain Development, Meditation

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Burt Glenn

Burt Glenn

Burton Glenn is a former Biology and Chemistry Professor and world traveler. He studies and writes about the effects of aging on the body and mind, as well as his personal experiences transitioning into retirement.