The Neuroscience of Success

The Amens have performed thousands of brain images and found four key ways to optimize the brain for success.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

We’ve been taught that if you dream big, work hard, have a positive mindset, learn from your mistakes, and persist, you can be anything you want in life.

But brain imaging has shown that it takes some help from a healthy, sharp brain to achieve your potential. At Amen Clinics, we perform brain imaging called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which looks at blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. Since 1991, we have performed more than 135,000 brain SPECT scans on patients from 120 countries. SPECT has taught us four important lessons about the brain that show why it’s instrumental to a person’s success.

1) Protect the most human, thoughtful part of your brain. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of your brain that makes you human, involved in complex behaviors and personality development. In humans, it accounts for 30% of the brain’s volume. Compare that to chimpanzees, whose prefrontal cortex is 11% of their brain’s volume; dogs at 7%; cats coming in at 3%; and mice at just 1% of their volume. The PFC is involved with executive functions, such as focus, forethought, judgment, impulse control, and empathy. It functions like the boss at work. When the PFC is low in activity, people struggle to make good decisions. That’s what makes protecting it, particularly from brain injuries, especially important. In a study we published in PLOS One, we found that 91% of traumatic brain injuries involve the PFC.

Luckily, preventing brain injuries isn’t difficult: Don’t let children or teens hit soccer balls with their heads, play tackle football, or engage in other activities that leave them vulnerable to injuries. Alcohol and marijuana decrease PFC function; the less consumed, the better. Make sure to sleep 7 hours a night; less than that decreases PFC function, increasing the likelihood your decision-making could be compromised.

2) Safeguard your brain’s pleasure centers. Deep within the recesses of the brain are structures involved with pleasure and motivation, most notably two areas called the nucleus accumbens in the left and right hemispheres. They are intensely activated by the neurotransmitter dopamine with substances like cocaine, sex, video games, high-fat, sugary foods, and fame. Dopamine fuels addiction, making everyday activities less interesting. Intense pleasure means huge dopamine dumps, which over time causes the nucleus accumbens to be less responsive, consequently causing the need for more and more of the behaviors. You can protect your pleasure centers by limiting thrill-seeking activities that could wear them out, like racing, cocaine, methamphetamines, excessive video games, pornography, and scary movies. Instead, engaging in safer behaviors that protect the brain, such as sunlight, exercise, meditation, and listening to pleasurable music, can help cushion your pleasure centers. Having a dedicated passion and purpose in life also helps to activate the pleasure centers in a healthy way.

3) Know how to keep your brain and memory healthy for a lifetime. Another lesson from our brain imaging work is that illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, begin in the brain years—even decades—before people have any symptoms.

But you can do something about it, and prevention seems to be key. In Daniel’s new book, Memory Rescue, he found the best way to keep your brain healthy—maybe even rescue it if you think it is headed for trouble—is to prevent or treat the 11 major risk factors that could steal your mind.

The mnemonic BRIGHT MINDS can help:

  • Blood flow: Low blood flow is the #1 brain imaging predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. Strategies to increase blood flow include regular exercise and consuming beets and the supplement ginkgo.
  • Retirement/aging: When you stop learning, your brain starts dying. New learning should be part of everyone’s life.
  • Genetics: Genes are not a death sentence, but they should be a wake up call to get serious about brain health if you have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in your family history. Be very serious about brain health as soon as possible if this is the case.
  • Head Trauma: Your brain is soft, and your skull is hard with sharp bony ridges. Protect it from falls and getting hit with helmets or avoiding dangerous activities that put your head in danger.
  • Toxins, drugs, alcohol, environmental toxins, such as mold: Support the four organs of detoxification with simple steps. Drink more water to flush out your kidneys. Eat more fiber to help your gut along. Sweat might be stinky but is good for wringing out toxins, which can easily be achieved with exercise or saunas. And detoxify your liver with hefty amounts of vegetables, particularly brassicas (kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts).
  • Mental health issues: If you struggle with depression and chronic stress, get help from a professional.
  • Immunity and infections: Optimize your vitamin D level to help optimize against inflammatory diseases like Lyme disease.
  • Neurohormone deficiencies: Regularly test and optimize your hormones if you have a history of thyroid problems or testosterone imbalances.
  • Diabesity: As you might guess, this dual condition comes from a combination of high blood sugar and being overweight. Eat a calorie-smart diet, filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, protein, and fat. That's right, don't be afraid of fat: Brain function relies on fat to perform at optimal levels.
  • Sleep issues: Sleep apnea or chronic insomnia can interrupt brain function and make it hard to be productive. Make sleep a priority. If you have sleep apnea, get it treated.

4) You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better. At Amen Clinics we performed the first and largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study on active and retired NFL players. We saw high levels of brain damage in our players, which was not a surprise. Most of them had been hit in the head thousands of times. What did surprise us was that 80% of our players showed improvement in as little as two months on our Memory Rescue program. Most people have not been repeatedly hit in the head, which means there is hope for all of us to have better brains—and better lives. Protect your brain: It's crucial for your health and success.