Your Best Brain and Screens: Research on Brain Health and Screen Use
I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of Your Best Brain: The Science of Brain Improvement by professor John J. Medina, Ph.D. Dr. Medina works at the University of Washington school of medicine. He is a New York Times bestselling author, a consultant to the educational commission of the states, and a regular speaker on the relationship between the cognitive neurosciences and education.
This guy is well respected and knows the brain.
As I listened to this book or course I couldn’t help but think about how this information impacts our screen use. Dr. Medina goes over many ideas on how our brain works and ways to improve brain function. I’m going to discuss five points that stand out and how they relate to screen use.
Research shows exercise is key in order to improve our brain function. Specifically, aerobic or cardio exercises (i.e. power walking, riding a bike, and elliptical machines) helps many things such as…
Reduces the risk of general dementia by 50%
Reduced chance to get Alzheimer’s disease by 60%
People who are active are statistically more likely to age better then those who are inactive. This is where screens come in.
Unless we are playing Dance Dance Revolution most of our screen use keeps us physically inactive. Yes, our brains are working hard answering emails, writing reports, and talking with friends, however, we are usually immobile when we engage online. The more time we spend online, the more inactive we become.
Research shows those who are inactive do not age well. You are more likely to have low energy, memory loss, an increased likelihood of getting deceases, and experience other physical and mental health problems. The more we stay glued to our devices, the more likely we are to suffer.
The course recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise. This is 30 minutes a day for five days a week. Some examples of moderate exercise are walking too fast to sing, gardening, or dancing. Research showed strengthen training exercises helped our brains but they did not go into the details in this lecture.
In today’s modern world, most everyone must use screens. But that doesn’t mean we have to live a sedentary lifestyle. There are truly great benefits to daily exercise. Another positive from exercise will improve our online activities. We can learn more and adapt to new work stressors better. We can increase our mental health, allowing us to connect with others online rather than feel depressed and left out. With increased energy, we can improve work performance. Just because we are online a lot does not mean we can’t be active.
2. Brain Training Games
The audiobook went over several ways to improve memory and there are interesting findings around video games.
In general, there are not positive affects from brain-training video games.
When there were positive affects they were short-term and they mostly improved in the games themselves with no bleed-through to other cognitive abilities. One researcher put it well by saying there is no convincing evidence that cognitive-based games work any better than other traditional activities like physical exercise, playing a musical instrument or doing a new hobby.
That being said, research showed for people 60 + years old, brain-training video games helped improve their brains. They found video games (they used a game similar to Mario Kart) experienced improved working memory and stopped the decline from the prefrontal cortex. They found to have long lasting positive benefits as well.
Other Research on the Effects of Gaming on Kids with ADHD
This last point about stopping the decline of the prefrontal cortex is interesting. For children and adolescents, their prefrontal cortex are still developing. If video games stop the decline of the prefrontal cortex in seniors, what does it do to the developing prefrontal cortex in charge of executive functioning and impulse control?
Research outside of this course shows video games can increase ADHD symptoms like impulse control and executive functioning issues. The research showed a bidirectional relationship; meaning the more kids played video games, the more ADHD symptoms they experienced and the more ADHD symptoms they had, the more likely they were to play video games. They also found extreme ADHD showed higher levels of addiction to gaming. For resources on gaming addiction, click here.
So, for a certain population, video games can help improve brain function. However, for most of us, research showed there is not much benefit from brain-training video games.
3. Mediterranean Diet
The course explained how a Mediterranean diet improves our brain health and cuts the risk of heart disease by 30%. The Mediterranean diet consists of fish, whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, red wine, and little salt or red meat. This diet helps improve our memory too. The study clearly shows the positive impacts of this diet.
When we eat a steady stream of fish, fruits, and whole grains, we are giving our body and brain the fuel to thrive. When we eat junk food, fast food, or high-sugar foods, we simply don’t experience the same positive effects.
It’s natural to go to these easier foods when we are on devices most of the day. With so much online work and/or play, it can be hard to find the time to prepare a Mediterranean diet. However, similar to exercise, we will greatly benefit from a healthy intake food
4. Positive Socialization
Dr. Medina discussed the benefits socialization has for our brain health. Studies in older adults showed improved memory and are better able to learn. Seeing things from another’s perspective increases cognition. The research showed as little as 10 minutes per day of positive social interactions makes a difference. The key word is positive.
They found stressful and negative social interactions did not help. The studies also found competition was the least impactful type of socializing for improving brain health. Basically, the more friends we have, the better our brains will function. The less friends we have, the worse our brains are.
We can use the Internet to connect with others or isolate. Online activities keep us occupied and busy making it hard to find connection online. While answering emails, working on projects, shopping, and gaming are fun activities, we can increase our health from using the Internet to connect with others.
People of all ages can find friends online. Just like in the physical world, jerks can be found online. However, we can choose to interact with friends and increase our social capital or we can argue and fight with others online. Let’s use social media platforms to improve our brain health and connect with others.
Finally, our brains need sleep: good, consistent sleep. Each person needs different amounts of sleep. The course discussed the benefits of finding out how much you need and sticking with it consistently.
Sleep Debt & Getting Enough Sleep
Most of us in America don’t get enough sleep and have accumulated what’s called a sleep debt. A sleep debt is when you get less sleep than your body and mind need. For example, if you need nine hours of sleep daily but get eight daily over a week’s time, research shows you will perform worse cognitively had you gotten nine hours daily. It can take up to a full week of increasing your sleep daily to pay off your sleep debt.
Researchers found a way to find your ideal sleep needed. Go to bed when you’re tired and don’t set an alarm to take up. Whenever you wake up naturally will give you a good idea of how much sleep you need. Now, this sounds great if you are retired or live in a fantasy world where responsibilities are an option. However, for most of us, this idea is not possible.
So, my suggestion is go to sleep at the same time each night when you’re tired and set an alarm for whenever you need to get up. If you feel tired, lethargic, and have low energy for a few days, go to bed earlier. Normally we can’t sleep-in more but we probably can go to bed earlier. Except if we are watching something on Netflix.
Screens directly impact our sleep. Most of us heard this before, but Dr. Medina discussed how blue-light directly impacts sleep. The presence of blue-light, or a screen, inhibits our brains producing Melatonin. When we don’t produce Melatonin, we struggle to fall asleep. It’s recommended to not view a screen an hour or two before you go to bed.
Many people, at least in college, pull all-nighters. Cramming for a test or finishing a paper might leave you staying up all night.
The course discusses how toxic all-nighters are.
Our brains are in a much worse state than before the all-nighter started. Our short- and long-term memory deteriorates. We also accumulate a large sleep debt which will take us weeks to recover from. Procrastination might push us to all-nighters; however, we will suffer for doing so. All the more reason to work on procrastinating less.
Become a Sleep Environmentalist
The course discussed the benefits of becoming a sleep environmentalist. Create a space dedicated to sleep. This room should not have any screens, be quiet, dark, and free from stress as much as possible. Our brains produce a chemical that mirrors the day/night cycle. When we see the sun, our brains tell us it’s time go get up. When it’s dark, our brains tell us to sleep. That’s why it’s helpful to have a dark room if possible.
When we get a good night’s sleep, we retain information better. Research shows interrupting our sleep negatively impacts our ability to learn new things. As you improve your sleep, notice the impact it has on you and your overall health.
Sleep and Screens
I think sleep and screens have a bi-directional relationship. When we have a healthy amount of sleep, our screen use is positively impacted. When we engage in healthy screen use, our sleep is positively impacted.
By optimizing our brain function, our online activities will see a positive effect. Online productivity, socialization, and relaxation will improve. Our mental health and cognitive growth improves. We will experience increased energy for other life activities. Consistent, good sleep helps a lot.
Our brains have neuroplasticity, meaning they can change. Research shows it’s never to late for our brains to change. Exercise, diet, socialization, sleep, and some gaming are all important factors in producing our best brain.
If you implement these ideas, notice what happens. Notice how you are positively impacted and how your brain health improves. Use screens to enhance your brain development and growth rather letting screens deteriorate them. If you would like help improving your relationship with screens to improve your brain health, reach out to us or set up an appointment.