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How To Boost Your Brain's Health To Improve Your Mind, Habits, and Lifestyle

Mar 10 2023
By Laura Roe Stevens
5 min read
Woman meditating outside.

Discover why knowing what you need to change might not be enough to create actual lasting transformation.

You must change your habits to improve your life, health, and well-being. Resistance to change, however, often runs deep. How you think, and subliminal messaging of a sense of peace or control from routines and cultural/familial norms often play a big role in a person’s ability to achieve lasting transformation. That’s why “knowing” that new actions may be better for you doesn’t always mean you’ll change your behavior or stay the course with new intentions.

Robert Bilder, Ph.D., Chief of Psychology and Distinguished Professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, understands this all too well. “There is an ancient 'habit' system in our brains that helps us perform many tasks better but sometimes keeps us stuck in prior ways of thinking, acting, and feeling. By intentionally breaking old habits and replacing them with new ones, we can align our actions with our highest values,” says Dr. Bilder.

He explains that we change our brains “all the time”—for better or worse. Our default behaviors and habits can keep our brains operating status quo or even lead to a decline in its functionality. It behooves us to actively “manage” our brain performance. Some choices and activities are scientifically proven to boost brain health. As the host of our Boosting Brain Health Immersion Retreat, Dr. Bilder discusses these and the related scientific evidence, shares highlights from ground-breaking research about brain neuroplasticity (the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization), and provides valuable tips to help “grow and protect our brains.”

Potentially brain-boosting activities offered at Canyon Ranch retreats are creative endeavors such as painting and drawing — as well as dance, sound baths, music, meditation, time spent in nature, exercise, proper sleep, better nutrition, and a balanced intake of stimulants and depressants.

Artistic endeavors are among the practices linked to enhancing brain neuroplasticity and a person’s ability to adapt, flow with, and embrace change.

“If you want to change your behavior, you must change your brain. And recently, science has shown how the brain changes when we engage in creative practices,” says Dr. Bilder.

How Creativity Impacts Brain Health

There's ground-breaking research that illuminates artists’ expanded brain structures in visual areas when compared with scientists, and a comparison group composed of similarly smart (but not necessarily creative) individuals. This research by a team of UCLA scientists involved word games as well as MRI scans of the brains of its participants during various activities. The results showed a more random organization of neural pathways among eminently creative visual artists and scientists. Further evidence from these landmark studies suggested that exceptionally creative artists and scientists did not have to exert as much brain energy to perform tasks demanding divergent “out-of-the-box” thinking.

“Highly creative people typically think differently, view the world and their abilities in unique ways, and often buck social norms. This allows for more flexibility in life choices and daily habits. That said, it’s all about balance rather than trying to focus on "one thing" we need to do. Bringing that balance to our brains and lives may be the most important goal,” Dr. Bilder says.

At the retreat, he advises everyone to look at themselves and their habits in compassionate ways and not try to change too much at once.

“If you feel you need to change your diet, exercise routine, and communication style while also trying meditation and new creative outlets, you may want to try a gradual path, so you don’t become overwhelmed," he shares. "We change our lives by little habit changes, one step at a time. It is much easier to acquire and solidify new habits in small chunks.”

If creative endeavors intimidate you, just remember perfection is not the goal. Being flexible, exploring, and having fun is the objective. Another perk from trying artistic exercises (offered at all Canyon Ranch retreats!) is that art enhances your ability to accept yourself and others and aids in letting go of rigid thinking.

Dr. Bilder suggests that retreat participants may benefit from embracing a sense of wonder and awe and exploring the unique paths that feel good and fun for them. While one person may want to focus on strength training within a gym, another may prefer to hike and do obstacle courses in nature. Similarly, one person may opt to meditate by mindfully observing the sights, smells, and movement of nature. Another may explore a walking meditation, yet another person may snuggle under blankets and listen to a recorded meditation.

Remember, there is no “one right way” to improve fitness, diet, or mindfulness. Creative people intuitively know this and embrace their individuality. Luckily, we can all exercise our creative muscles and expand our grey matter—and our ability to change our habits and lives—for the better.