David Perlmutter, functional neurologist, wants you to know how to improve your brain. But in his years practicing, he’s seen a disconnect between the information he tells patients and their ability to act on that information. Rather than blame the patient, he decided to investigate the neurological reasons for why it’s so difficult to make healthy, smart choices — and he found out that our modern lifestyles are actually conspiring against our brains and setting us up for failure.
In his latest book, Brain Wash, he explains how this works and what you can do about it, and he shared his insights with WellBe. Read on to learn the physical changes happening in our brains that he discovered, how our devices impair us from making healthy choices, the integral relationship between sleep and the brain, and more.
When a person doesn’t follow through on a doctor’s advice, it’s common for the health care provider to blame the patient. But the truth, according to Dr. Perlmutter, is that patients fail to act on 50% to 80% of the information they receive, and so he realized that clearly something was going on in the decision-making process. When he took a step back and looked at the bigger picture, he was able to identify the culprit: disconnection syndrome.
Dr. Perlmutter explains there are two regions of the brain that control our thoughts and behavior: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala is impulsive and seeks instant gratification (think eating a doughnut, sleeping in, watching another episode), while the prefrontal cortex is, as Dr. Perlmutter describes, “the adult in the room.” It’s the connection between these two regions that allows us to make good decisions. Imagine it: you see a delicious-looking plate of donuts on the conference table at the morning meeting, and your amygdala lights up, giving you an urge to grab one. But then your prefrontal cortex, sensing the action in the amygdala, steps in and reminds you that you have some overnight oats packed in your bag for after the meeting, and that you’ll feel so much better if you eat that instead. You put the donut back.
The connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex is what keeps our behavior in check and allows us to make healthy choices (it also helps us make choices that save our lives in other ways, like not stepping too close to an edge or hitting someone when we’re angry). But, as Dr. Perlmutter explains, there’s a problem: our modern lifestyles have broken that connection.
Things like lack of sleep, an inflammatory diet, and constant digital input have an effect on the structure of the brain, and that effect includes disconnection syndrome, or a weakening of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. “The world around us is actively hacking into us to rewire and restructure and refunctionalize our brains for a negative outcome,” he says.
This is no bueno just on the face of it, but it’s even worse when you understand how important it is for the prefrontal cortex to communicate with the amygdala. “The connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, or our impulsive behavior, is really what separates people from those who actually accomplish lifestyle change and can make these things stick in their lives, and those who can’t,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
We all want to be in the former camp, obviously. Luckily, Dr. Perlmutter talked with us about how to improve your brain so that you can make healthy choices and accomplish big things going forward.
An 8-Point Plan for How to Improve Your Brain
Once Dr. Perlmutter understood that disconnection syndrome was behind people’s inability to make healthy, lasting changes, he needed to find a way to address the root issue. That meant coming up with a way to re-open the lines of communication the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, allowing “the adult in the room” to help guide our choices once again.
What he found was that there are eight elements that are essential when you’re trying to figure out how to improve your brain and beat disconnection syndrome. They are:
Getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep is almost encouraged these days, with the constant push to always be productive. But if you don’t get enough restored sleep, Dr. Perlmutter says, you’re going to be much more impulsive the next day (how many of us grab a sugary refined carb for breakfast when we didn’t get a lot of sleep or slept poorly?!).
A healthy diet. The predominant Western diet is an inflammatory diet, which impairs brain function.
Regular exercise. Physical activity helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is important because cortisol can lead to more disconnection in the brain. Exercise also reduces inflammation.
Using technology wisely. Mindless use of our phones or other devices trains our brain for impulsive behavior. Being mindful and intentional with the digital world helps bring the prefrontal cortex back in charge. Think using your device for a purpose, like looking up directions, texting someone to tell them you’re running late, or seeing if it’s going to rain later, rather than mindlessly scrolling through social media, refreshing email, or opening every app on your phone!
Meditation. Dr. Perlmutter told us that meditation is extremely effective at lighting up the prefrontal cortex, and that this effect persists long after your meditation session ends.
Investing in relationships. Reconnecting with others and making an effort to spend time engaged with other human beings can help beat disconnection syndrome.
Spending time in nature. On average, Americans spend 87% of the time indoors, and 6% in their cars — yikes! That’s a combined 93% of our lives not outside, which is pretty depressing on its own, but Dr. Perlmutter finds it particularly problematic because nature reduces inflammation and cortisol and fosters less impulsivity. If you can’t get away to a national park or take a long walk outdoors, Dr. Perlmutter says that even just a plant in your home or a photograph of the natural environment can help.
Practicing empathy. Today’s world is an extremely polarized, isolated one. Many people exhibit impulsive behavior by making mean and hateful comments on the internet. Exercising the impulse to hate those that you don’t know or understand further weakens the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. By practicing empathy and showing compassion for the perspectives of other people, you can strengthen this connection.
All of these elements are essential when it comes to how to improve your brain and beat disconnection syndrome. However, if Dr. Perlmutter had to rank them, he says that getting enough sleep and using technology less and more intentionally are the two most important pieces. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.
How to Improve Your Brain By Changing Your Digital Experience
The internet is great for a lot of things, but unfortunately not all of those things are good. Clickbait headlines, autoloading videos, constant pop-ups, push notifications, and suggested content that’s tailored for you — all of those things make us more distracted, more impulsive, and less able to access the part of our brain that thinks critically and keeps a long-term perspective. In other words, when we use technology mindlessly, it makes it nearly impossible for us to make good decisions.
“The screen is a useful servant, but a dangerous master,” says Dr. Perlmutter, paraphrasing Nobel Laureate Christian Lange. “Let’s allow it to serve us, but let’s not be used by it, which is what is happening.”
To help people benefit from the wonders of the internet without damaging their brains, Dr. Perlmutter came up with a helpful self-assessment called the Test of Time. It’s a simple acronym that you can go through whenever you find yourself on your computer, tablet, or phone to evaluate whether you are using the technology mindfully.
T: Time. “You know, it’s been said that when you have five minutes to spend on Instagram, it’s a great way to spend 35 minutes,” says Dr. Perlmutter (we can definitely relate — can you?). To combat this, just decide how much time you want to allot to the screen for a given task ahead of time, whether you’re checking email or going on social media or finishing up some work.
I: Intention. Make sure you have a clearly defined purpose when you go to your device. What is your goal? What do you hope to accomplish? If you can’t answer those questions, odds are high that you’re going to end up mindlessly scrolling.
M: Mindfulness. Speaking of mindlessly scrolling, it’s important to consciously remain mindful when you use technology. Ask yourself whether you’re engaged and mindful of all of the things that are attempting to harvest your attention, because, as Dr. Perlmutter says, “there’s this great value in where your eyeballs go online — but it’s great value for others, not necessarily for you.”
E: Enrichment. Only allow digital experiences that are enriching to you. When you step away from the screen, do you feel better than you did before, or do you feel drained and like you just wasted time? Pay attention to this feeling, and adjust your use of technology accordingly.
“Technology is great, but it has to be reined in,” Dr. Perlmutter says. With the Test of Time, we have a simple tool for doing just that. We’re definitely going to try this!
Sleep and the Brain (and the Relationship Between Blue Light and Sleep)
It’s clear there’s a relationship between sleep and the brain, but Dr. Perlmutter really opened our eyes to how important that relationship is. What makes it even more essential to focus on sleep is the fact that most of us aren’t getting enough. Dr. Perlmutter told us that at least a third of American adults don’t get restorative sleep, and that the short- and long-term effects of that are vast. “It has immediate implications in the next days, in terms of being more impulsive,” he says. “At the same time, getting a good night’s sleep the next day is very empowering.”
Dr. Perlmutter explained that REM sleep is critical when it comes to reconnecting to the prefrontal cortex and offsetting disconnection syndrome, which is why it’s perhaps the most important step in his 8-step program for how to improve your brain. “If we could take a magic pill to repair the brain, the reconnection pill, there is no such thing obviously.” he says. “But if people really want to leverage one thing, I would say look at your sleep hygiene.”
Sleep hygiene refers to all the things you do during the day and in the time before bed that can either help or hurt your sleep quality. There are a lot of habits that could contribute to poor sleep hygiene — drinking caffeine too late in the day, exercising at the wrong time, eating heavy meals — but one of the major culprits has to do with blue light and sleep.
Many of us use our devices late in the evening, whether it’s scrolling on Instagram, reading a book on a tablet, or finishing up some work stuff. But all of those devices emit blue light, and the relationship between blue light and sleep is powerful, since it inhibits melatonin. This matters for sleep, because melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep/wake cycles, and thus helps us fall and stay asleep. To avoid the effects of blue light, stay away from your devices in the hours leading up to bed.
Unfortunately, the relationship between sleep and the brain is so complex that even if you’re getting eight hours, you might still be experiencing issues in your brain function. That’s because the kind of sleep you’re getting matters just as much as the amount you’re getting. As Dr. Perlmutter explained to us, you need deep sleep to activate the glymphatic system and remove waste from your central nervous system, while you need REM sleep in order to process and contextualize your experiences and memory.
So how do you know if you’re getting the restorative sleep you need for your brain to function optimally? Dr. Perlmutter shared a few suggestions:
Try a wearable device that gives you data on your sleep quality. He uses the Oura Ring, but there are several other smartwatches and wearables that have a similar function. These types of devices can clue you into sleep issues you might not know about, like sleep apnea or periodic leg movements.
Go to a doctor’s office and get a polysomnogram, which records your brain waves, oxygen level, heart rate, breathing, and eye and leg movements while you sleep.
If you have a partner, ask them if they’ve observed anything notable while you sleep. Do you snore? Stop breathing? Kick the sheets? That’s all good information to have, because it can alert you to things that may be pulling you out of important stages of sleep.
Once you have a sense of your sleep quality, you can begin making changes to try to improve it and track your progress. “Who knows what it may be,” says Dr. Perlmutter, “but being able to have that feedback is really great, because you can have a single variable, make a change, and then see what it’s like the next night.” For him, he found that even checking his email after dinner was impacting his sleep quality (again we see the power of blue light and sleep!), but everyone’s particular sleep sensitivities will be different. Ultimately, the most important thing when it comes to sleep and the brain is to prioritize restorative sleep and make lifestyle changes that support it.
Conclusion: Dr. Perlmutter’s Takeaways on How to Improve Your Brain
Dr. Perlmutter’s research makes it clear that our modern lifestyles are damaging to our brains, which then leads to damage in other parts of our health. We were as shocked as anyone to hear that our fast-paced, stressful, “always on” modern lifestyle has had a physical impact on our brains. The good news is that there are things you can do to combat this reality and become a calmer, more empathetic, more clear-headed, healthier version of yourself.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet of takeaways from our interview with Dr. Perlmutter:
Our behaviors are driven by two regions of the brain: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is impulsive and rewards immediate gratification, while the prefrontal cortex acts as the “adult in the room.” The connection between the two is crucial to our ability to make good decisions.
Our modern lifestyles, especially our relationship to technology and devices, have severed the connection between these two brain regions, leading to “disconnection syndrome.” Because of this, our amygdala rules our behavior, leading to impulsive and unhealthy choices.
Dr. Perlmutter’s advice for how to improve your brain and beat disconnection syndrome includes 8 parts: 1) Eating a healthy diet; 2) Exercising; 3) Using technology judiciously; 4) Meditating; 5) Getting enough sleep; 6) Exercising empathy; 7) Spending time in nature; 8) Investing in relationships.
The two most important parts of that eight-point plan are sleep and using technology less and in an intentional and positive way.
When it comes to using our devices, we should use the acronym “TIME” to make sure we’re using it wisely. TIME stands for: Time, Intention, Mindfulness, Enrichment
When it comes to sleep and the brain, it’s important not only to get enough sleep, but also to get the right kind of sleep. You can use a wearable, get a sleep scan, or talk to your partner to get data on your sleep, and then adjust your sleep hygiene to improve it.
In the end, it’s important to not get overwhelmed by these eight steps, or to give up because you’re having trouble with one of them. As Dr Perlmutter says, “it doesn’t matter where you jump on the carousel. It might be by paying attention to your sleep, changing your diet, getting out into nature — whatever it takes to get you a little bit better in terms of your decision making, that will be feed-forward and translate into better decision making across the board.”
Watch our full interview with Dr. Perlmutter to learn the role CBD plays in brain function, how being more empathetic relates to your neurological health, why he goes to conferences that have nothing to do with his speciality, the specific gratitude practice he does every morning and why, and much more.
Which of Dr. Perlmutter’s 8 steps to improving your brain do you find the most challenging? Why? Tell us in the comments below — I bet we can help each other come up with some awesome strategies for overcoming obstacles!