A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in May 2018 found that differences in size and structure of specific regions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex predicted a person’s ability to resist temptation and to make healthy food choices. The larger these areas of the brain, the more easily people are able to delay gratification and say to themselves, ‘Although I’d really enjoy eating a second piece of choc-caramel mud cake, it’s not worth the future risk of heart attack or weight gain’. The smaller a person’s prefrontal cortex, the more likely they will think, ‘Forget the consequences, I’m going to finish that box of donuts.’
In addition, the more connections between the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in decision-making) and the nucleus accumbens (dubbed the pleasure centre of the brain) the more a person is able to talk themselves out of eating something they will regret later. The stronger our voice of reason and the more communication channels between intellect and indulgence, the better we are at self-restraint.
So what can we do if we have a small prefrontal cortex?
There is good news. The brain behaves like a muscle and we are able to build up areas of our brain through specific training. When it comes to the prefrontal cortex, scientists have so far discovered three key ways to enlarge it.
- Meditation: Find 10-20 minutes a day to sit quietly and simply focus on your breathing. If you’ve never done any mediation, buy a book on the subject or do a short course. It will benefit every area of your health and life. Even just 5 minutes on waking will make a difference. Once that 5 minutes of quiet time becomes a habit, you can build up by one minute each week until you reach 20 minutes. It’s not only a beautiful way to start your day, it will improve your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing immeasurably. Tai chi, qui gong, yoga and martial arts are also excellent at improving focus and activating the prefrontal cortex.
- Secondly, eat mindfully: when you eat, don’t be multitasking. If you’re eating while reading this, stop eating until you’ve finished this Health-e-Byte. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time so when we multitask we’re rapidly flicking attention from one task to the next. The brain finds this stressful, tiring and ultimately damaging.
- Thirdly, speak to yourself with compassion and encouragement: We’re quick to beat up on ourselves when we make poor choices but we rarely give ourselves a pat on the back when we do something well. Yet it strengthens the prefrontal cortex when we acknowledge to ourselves, ‘Good on me. Despite my really busy day, I still managed to fit in a bike ride.’ Or ‘Even though there was so much junk food to tempt me at the party, I stayed with the vegetables and hummus. I’m really pleased with myself.’ No one else needs to hear what you’re saying to yourself. It might feel awkward engaging in self-praise but that’s only because we’ve developed the habit of doing otherwise. The process of rewiring our brain feels uncomfortable. Discomfort is therefore a positive sign that you are changing your brain.
It will also come as no surprise that the prefrontal cortex works much better after good night’s sleep and a bout of exercise. Whenever we engage in physical exercise, we produce a chemical in the brain called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This stimulates the growth of new brain cells and new connections between brain cells, which is exactly what we want.