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How to have the second brain to remember more

How to Have the Second Brain to Remember More

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How to Have the Second Brain to Remember More

Your whole life depends on you being able to retrieve things from your memory.

I’m sure you know what I mean… “Where are my keys?” “What major tasks do I need to complete today?” “What time is that meeting I need to attend?”

Questions such as these bombard our minds daily. If you’re able to recall the relevant information, you’ll keep your life on track. However, if you fail to recall the information – your life will start to move in a confused and unproductive direction.

We’d all love to boost our memories, but often we go about it in the wrong way. It’s not about how much information we can absorb into our minds, but how easily we can retrieve this information (which most people aren’t good at).

Information Overload = Memory Failure

We live in an information age, where our minds are besieged 24/7 by facts, figures, news, drama and trends.

To maintain our standing among our peers, most of us strive in vain to keep up-to-date with everything from music to movies to politics.

It’s a never-ending whirlpool of information. And if you try to remember all of this information – you’re likely to find that your mind becomes so full that you begin to lose the ability to think clearly.

Information overload is a modern-day plague. And your memory is likely to be one of the plague’s victims.

For example, when you were younger, you may have loved to sing along with your favorite songs. Sadly, as you’ve grown older, you’ve started to forget the words to the songs. The more you try to recall the words – the further from your mind they seem to be. It’s frustrating, and has probably blighted a pastime that you used to love.

Could it be that over the years, you’ve tried to remember just too many songs? Perhaps.

As you’ll see below, continually overloading your memory, can lead to recall issues and embarrassing social interactions.

It’s on the Tip of My Tongue, But…

It can be distressing when the flow of our conversation is blocked by our inability to recall information. And this can be especially traumatic if it takes place during a formal work environment.

For instance, imagine that you’re doing a presentation at work to some potential clients. You’ve created PowerPoint slides to guide you through your presentation, but the bulk of the message you’re hoping to convey is held in the memory banks of your mind. You start your presentation positively, but after a few awkward questions from one of the clients, you notice your confidence slipping – and your recall ability falling too! Suddenly, facts and figures seem out of your grasp. You’re stuttering, and rapidly losing the attention of the audience. To put it another way: you’re presentation has gone down the pan!

Storing tons of information in your memory is worthless if you’re unable to recall the parts you need – at the time you need them. Luckily, there’s a way to give your physical memory some much-needed breathing space.

How to Let a ‘Digital Brain’ Take the Strain

Our physical brains can only offer us a limited amount of memory storage and recall abilities. These limits used to be sufficient, but as mentioned earlier, we now live in an information age, where our ability to absorb and recall information has been stretched beyond our normal capabilities.

What’s the answer to this problem? Well, you could start by giving some of this storing and recalling work to a digital brain.

By this, I don’t mean you should turn yourself into a cyborg. In fact, the only thing you’ll be turning yourself into is a super-efficient and productive version of yourself!

I’ve called it a digital brain, but you’ll know it simply as digital or online storage. And you’re sure to recognize some of the tools:

  • Airtable
  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • Google Drive
  • Pocket

The above software (and other similar ones) allows you to store, organize, and easily retrieve information. For example, Pocket lets you capture blogs, news and videos into a digital pocketbook. This is achieved through a one-click process. Once the content is within your pocketbook, you can retrieve and view it at any time. Clearly, this is far more efficient than trying to remember which stories you’ve seen earlier in the day – but hadn’t had chance to read/watch.

Instead of trying to remember everything with your physical brain, begin moving over some of the information to your digital brain. Whichever tool (or tools) you decide to use, you’ll immediately be able to take advantage of the following benefits:

  • You can store as much information as you wish. (Free plans may offer only limited storage.)
  • You can easily organize and prioritize the stored information.
  • The stored information is available in an instant, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Compared to relying 100 percent on your physical brain, the addition of a digital brain will help you immensely. You’ll be able to determine what to store, what not to store, and when to retrieve information. You’ll also be able to use a digital brain to help you with your to-do lists and goal planning.

I personally use Google Drive for storing all my documents and images, and I use Todoist to help me manage my day-to-day tasks and workload. I’ve found using a digital brain to be liberating. Before, I used to stress over trying to remember everything – now my mind feels relaxed and free. I also have more mental energy for creative pursuits.

You may think that highly-productive people must be blessed with super-powered memories. For sure, some are, but most of these people are ordinary folks, with one difference… They have learned how to use a digital brain to help them store and retrieve information – and to organize their lives.

How to have the second brain to remember more

Our physical brains can only offer us a limited amount of memory storage and recall abilities.

YOUR whole life depends on you being able to retrieve things from your memory.

I’m sure you know what I mean… “Where are my keys?” “What major tasks do I need to complete today?” “What time is that meeting I need to attend?”

Questions such as these bombard our minds daily. If you’re able to recall the relevant information, you’ll keep your life on track. However, if you fail to recall the information – your life will start to move in a confused and unproductive direction.

We’d all love to boost our memories, but often we go about it in the wrong way. It’s not about how much information we can absorb into our minds, but how easily we can retrieve this information (which most people aren’t good at).

Information Overload = Memory Failure

We live in an information age, where our minds are besieged 24/7 by facts, figures, news, drama and trends.

To maintain our standing among our peers, most of us strive in vain to keep up-to-date with everything from music to movies to politics.

It’s a never-ending whirlpool of information. And if you try to remember all of this information – you’re likely to find that your mind becomes so full that you begin to lose the ability to think clearly.

Information overload is a modern-day plague. And your memory is likely to be one of the plague’s victims.

For example, when you were younger, you may have loved to sing along with your favorite songs. Sadly, as you’ve grown older, you’ve started to forget the words to the songs. The more you try to recall the words – the further from your mind they seem to be. It’s frustrating, and has probably blighted a pastime that you used to love.

Could it be that over the years, you’ve tried to remember just too many songs? Perhaps.

As you’ll see below, continually overloading your memory, can lead to recall issues and embarrassing social interactions.

It’s on the Tip of My Tongue, But…

It can be distressing when the flow of our conversation is blocked by our inability to recall information. And this can be especially traumatic if it takes place during a formal work environment.

For instance, imagine that you’re doing a presentation at work to some potential clients. You’ve created PowerPoint slides to guide you through your presentation, but the bulk of the message you’re hoping to convey is held in the memory banks of your mind. You start your presentation positively, but after a few awkward questions from one of the clients, you notice your confidence slipping – and your recall ability falling too! Suddenly, facts and figures seem out of your grasp. You’re stuttering, and rapidly losing the attention of the audience. To put it another way: you’re presentation has gone down the pan!

Storing tons of information in your memory is worthless if you’re unable to recall the parts you need – at the time you need them. Luckily, there’s a way to give your physical memory some much-needed breathing space.

How to Let a ‘Digital Brain’ Take the Strain

Our physical brains can only offer us a limited amount of memory storage and recall abilities. These limits used to be sufficient, but as mentioned earlier, we now live in an information age, where our ability to absorb and recall information has been stretched beyond our normal capabilities.

What’s the answer to this problem? Well, you could start by giving some of this storing and recalling work to a digital brain.

By this, I don’t mean you should turn yourself into a cyborg. In fact, the only thing you’ll be turning yourself into is a super-efficient and productive version of yourself!

I’ve called it a digital brain, but you’ll know it simply as digital or online storage. And you’re sure to recognize some of the tools:

  • Airtable
  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • Google Drive
  • Pocket

The above software (and other similar ones) allows you to store, organize, and easily retrieve information. For example, Pocket lets you capture blogs, news and videos into a digital pocketbook. This is achieved through a one-click process. Once the content is within your pocketbook, you can retrieve and view it at any time. Clearly, this is far more efficient than trying to remember which stories you’ve seen earlier in the day – but hadn’t had chance to read/watch.

Instead of trying to remember everything with your physical brain, begin moving over some of the information to your digital brain. Whichever tool (or tools) you decide to use, you’ll immediately be able to take advantage of the following benefits:

  • You can store as much information as you wish. (Free plans may offer only limited storage.)
  • You can easily organize and prioritize the stored information.
  • The stored information is available in an instant, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Compared to relying 100 percent on your physical brain, the addition of a digital brain will help you immensely. You’ll be able to determine what to store, what not to store, and when to retrieve information. You’ll also be able to use a digital brain to help you with your to-do lists and goal planning.

I personally use Google Drive for storing all my documents and images, and I use Todoist to help me manage my day-to-day tasks and workload. I’ve found using a digital brain to be liberating. Before, I used to stress over trying to remember everything – now my mind feels relaxed and free. I also have more mental energy for creative pursuits.

BRAIN RULE RUNDOWN

Rule #5: Repeat to remember.

    • The human brain can only hold about seven pieces of information for less than 30 seconds! Which means, your brain can only handle a 7-digit phone number. If you want to extend the 30 seconds to a few minutes or even an hour or two, you will need to consistently re-expose yourself to the information. Memories are so volatile that you have to repeat to remember.
    • Improve your memory by elaborately encoding it during its initial moments. Many of us have trouble remembering names. If at a party you need help remembering Mary, it helps to repeat internally more information about her. “Mary is wearing a blue dress and my favorite color is blue.” It may seem counterintuitive at first but study after study shows it improves your memory.
    • Brain Rules in the classroom. In partnership with the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, Medina tested this Brain Rule in real classrooms of 3rd graders. They were asked to repeat their multiplication tables in the afternoons. The classrooms in the study did significantly better than the classrooms that did not have the repetition. If brain scientists get together with teachers and do research, we may be able to eliminate need for homework since learning would take place at school, instead of the home.
  • Listen to chapter excerpt
  • About John Medina
  • The book’s introduction [PDF]
  • References for this rule [PDF]
  • Chapter summaries [PDF]
  • Buy the book

“Few people are better qualified to help managers sift through all the hype than John Medina.”

– Harvard Business Review

“Oliver Sacks meets Getting Things Done.”

– Cory Doctorow, co-editor of Boing Boing

“Medina’s humorous, conversational style make this an absolute please to read.”

How to have the second brain to remember more

During our Tiago Forte Week in October, we chatted with him about his digital organization concept called the Second Brain.

The Second Brain has helped millions to get organized using a framework that scales to each platform allowing you to map your brain digitally.

Tiago himself has taught 20,000+ people how to organize their lives using tools like Evernote and concepts like PARA and CODE. In this post, we’ll share some of the best resources out there for the Second Brain, introduce these concepts and share more about his prolific course, how to build a second brain.

We all consume lots of interesting information in our day-to-day life but, most of the time, we don’t do anything with it. Tiago Forte’s Second Brain method helps people to save their best ideas, organize their learning, and expand their creative output.

This concept is focused on behavior and habits first, rather than tools, and consists of 4 universal steps called CODE.

C (Collect)

Your second brain needs a place to collect all the things that resonates with you, from an online article to your grocery list, through reliable tools like to-do list apps, web clipper, note-taking apps, and more.

O (Organize)

Collecting things is easy but then you need to organize and structure them. Tiago uses a system called PARA to organize his content in 4 different categories:

Projects: series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.

Areas: spheres of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.

Resources: topics or themes of ongoing interest.

Archives: inactive items from the other three categories.

D (Distill)

Capturing and saving notes usually leads to large collections of information, but the more notes you keep, the more crucial it is to keep an effective summary of them in order to be able to immediately grasp the meaning of them. Through progressive summarization, you’ll be able to get the core of your notes.

E (Express)

Once you’ve collected and organized all your notes and information, you should consider sharing what you’ve learned with the world. Otherwise, hoarding information without putting them out there in the world would be pointless.

A crash course in training your brain for amazing recall

Let me tell you something utterly amazing about your brain. Better yet, let me show you something you can do to increase your brain’s ability to memorize information easily… and for the long-term. In short, take a moment with me here and I’ll demonstrate a way you can consciously use your own brain’s hardware to make you feel—and seem to others—truly gifted.

First, consider this challenge. Pretend that I ask you to go to the grocery store for me to buy a particular list of 10 items. Furthermore, suppose that I was going to dictate these items to you and that I would not let you write them down—yup, that’s right. All you can do is listen to me and do your best to memorize them. After that, you’d get in the car, drive to the store, and start shopping based on your memory of what I’d said.

How would you go about doing this? Would you make a mental acronym of the items? (POM, for example, might help you recall that you’ll need to get pizza, oranges, and mustard.) Would you make up a song about the items? Maybe you’d try to make a mental map of the store and walk through it to get the items. All of these are clever approaches, to be sure. And yet none of those are the approach most people would take, which is to merely repeat the items over and over and over again, one continuous loop of “pizza, oranges, mustard… pizza, oranges, mustard….”

Regardless of the technique used above, the average person can successfully recall seven or eight of 10 items posed in such a fashion—and he can only do so in a scattershot fashion. He might recall that “mustard” was somewhere on the list, but he may not recall that it was the third item he was told to buy. The reason for this hit-or-miss memory is that, in most of the examples above, a relatively minuscule portion of the brain is being used to retain the information—the hippocampus. This portion of the brain is not really adapted to storing information in a sequential or long-term way. So imagine the power and efficiency of your brain’s ability to retain information if you could use a whole lobe of it, say 20 percent of your brain’s matter, to help you out—instead of something about the size of a lima bean. You can.

I’ve written before about the visual portion of the brain. We’ll put it to the test today. Let’s tap into the occipital lobe and, by doing a simple experiment, see if you’re not able to dramatically increase your own memory. We’ll use that simple list of 10 random grocery items to judge its effectiveness. As silly as what I am about to ask you to do may seem, I promise you this: if you really try it, if you really suspend disbelief, and if you really follow my directions, you will be able to recall that list of 10 items perfectly. I don’t mean that you’ll be able to eventually remember all the items; I mean you will have immediate recall of each item, in the order they were given, the very instant you want them, even if I ask you to list them for me out of order. (For example: “Tell me what the seventh item was, followed by the third and then the tenth.”)

It starts with this odd list. Keep it handy. We’re going to use it a lot initially. You’ll recognize it as the words from an old nursery rhyme (“One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door,” etc.). Here’s what I’d like you to do with this list.

As I rattle off the 10 items (provided on the link you’ll find below), you are going to consult that nursery rhyme list and use it to create a picture in your mind. You’ll do this by associating the item I ask you to get with one of the items given in that list. For example, if the FIRST item I ask you to recall is a bag of oranges, then you’ll make a mental picture of “oranges” somehow associated with a “bun.” You might imagine a bunch of oranges nestled in a hot dog bun. Or maybe you’ll picture a sliced orange sitting in between the top and bottom of a hamburger bun. It’s entirely up to you, but I can tell you this: the odder the picture, the more details you create, the stronger that memory will be.

When I ask you to recall the SECOND item—say, a gallon of milk—you should make a mental picture that places “milk” and a “shoe” together. You’re drinking milk from the shoe, perhaps; or maybe you’re kicking that gallon of milk down the hallway with your high-heeled shoe. It’s up to you.

We’ll continue in like fashion. I’ll give the items in sequential order, you make the mental pictures. Initially, consult that nursery rhyme list—it’s fine! We are using that list as a matrix to help you organize the data I’m about to give you (the grocery list). Just DO NOT write down the list of items I ask you to buy—that’d be cheating. Go slowly so that you have enough time to really create each image. If I go too fast, just hit pause on the two-minute video you’re about to watch. When we are done, I’ll ask you to answer the questions in the paragraph below. Again, t rust me on this: if you really try it, crazy as it seems, it will work. Ready? If so, then click this link and get ready to hear the 10 items I want you to purchase. Go!

You’re back! Great.

Now, breathe deep, relax and answer these questions. Again, you may consult that memory matrix as you complete this questionnaire. (The answers are at the end of this article.)

  • What was the third item I asked you to buy, the one you associated with the “tree”?
  • What was the eighth?
  • In this order, what was item number 9, then 1, then 6?
  • Which numbered item was the “hamburger meat”?

So, are you amazed? You needn’t be. You were successful because you actively sought to use a large portion of your brain to do something that it naturally wants to do all of the time. Think about it: do you recall a time when you studied for a test and recalled that the answer to the test question lay in your notebook… it was on the right-hand page… in the upper-right corner…. Or do you recall precisely where you were when you heard of the attacks on 9/11? Of all the ways your brain tries to help you recall information, for most of us, it does so in a visual format. By virtue of the experiment above, you’ve just proven that harnessing that power of the brain can dramatically improve your own abilities.

Now, it’s up to you to put that newfound talent and knowledge to everyday use.

The original list of all ten items (in order): oranges, chocolate syrup, 50 lbs. of dog food, broccoli, air freshener, ice cream, 1 lb. hamburger meat, loaf of bread, blank data CDs, and heavy whipping cream

How to have the second brain to remember more

A recent survey showed that 39 percent of Americans have forgotten or misplaced at least one everyday item in the past week.

Those of us who are of a certain age may jokingly refer to memory lapses as “senior moments,” but a Trending Machine national poll tells a different story: Millennials between 18 and 34 are significantly more likely than their elders 55 or older to forget what day it is (15 vs. 7 percent), lose their keys (14 vs. 8 percent), forget to bring their lunch (9 vs. 3 percent) or even forget to take a bath or shower (6 vs. 2 percent).

In an age when more and more of us–of all generations–fight information overload and rely on our phones and laptops to remember things we used to entrust to our brains, a great memory is an impressive advantage. But like all skills, it has to be developed. Here are some helpful techniques:

1. Pay Attention. The best way to improve your memory is still to simply pay attention. When you space out or let your mind wander, you fail to form functional memories, and you’ll likely have a problem retrieving the information. The more you pay attention, the more you can retain.

2. Picture it. Generate an image for what you need to remember or anchor it in a symbol. A big part of memory is visual, so an image gives you a better chance of being able to recall something.

3. Repeat and Repeat. Repeat what you want to remember in your mind over and over again. This works well for locations, people and inanimate objects. Keep
repeating until it is implanted in your memory.

4. Discover the why. Think about the “why” of what you are trying to learn. Connecting it to a purpose makes anything more memorable.

5. List it. Write a list of the things you want to remember. The act of categorizing and organizing your thoughts makes them easier to remember, and some studies show that the physical act of writing something down–but not keyboarding it–helps reinforce it in your mind.

6. Form associations. Forming associations is a proven old trick for improving your memory. “Susan lives on Clinton Street” becomes “Susan lives on a street with the name of a saxophone-playing former president.”

7. Break it down. Short-term memory is thought to hold a limited number of items. Work with that limitation by breaking down complex information, especially numbers, into smaller bits. This is why phone numbers are divided; it’s much easier to remember 568-987-5432 than 5689875432.

8. Use keywords. Especially if you’re trying to remember a concept or index a number of things, “tag” your memories by developing a list of key words targeted to what you’re working to remember.

9. Teach it. The best way to remember something is to explain it to someone else. Share what you know with a colleague or friend, and you’ll find it easier to recall.

10. Use mnemonics. Patterns of letters, ideas, or associations can greatly assist memory. Almost every field of study makes use of traditional mnemonics. They can take the form of an acronym (like ROY G BIV for the colors of the rainbow) or a rhyme, like “I before E except after C.”

Young or old, we all need to exercise our memory if we want it to stay in shape. Keep it sharp and you’ll make a great impression by having the answer at hand before anybody else has time to pull out their smart phone.

Human memory happens in many parts of the brain at once, and some types of memories stick around longer than others.

From the moment we are born, our brains are bombarded by an immense amount of information about ourselves and the world around us. So, how do we hold on to everything we’ve learned and experienced? Memories.

Humans retain different types of memories for different lengths of time. Short-term memories last seconds to hours, while long-term memories last for years. We also have a working memory, which lets us keep something in our minds for a limited time by repeating it. Whenever you say a phone number to yourself over and over to remember it, you’re using your working memory.

Another way to categorize memories is by the subject of the memory itself, and whether you are consciously aware of it. Declarative memory, also called explicit memory, consists of the sorts of memories you experience consciously. Some of these memories are facts or “common knowledge”: things like the capital of Portugal (Lisbon), or the number of cards in a standard deck of playing cards (52). Others consist of past events you’ve experienced, such as a childhood birthday.

Nondeclarative memory, also called implicit memory, unconsciously builds up. These include procedural memories, which your body uses to remember the skills you’ve learned. Do you play an instrument or ride a bicycle? Those are your procedural memories at work. Nondeclarative memories also can shape your body’s unthinking responses, like salivating at the sight of your favorite food or tensing up when you see something you fear.

Your Memory Under Stress

In general, declarative memories are easier to form than nondeclarative memories. It takes less time to memorize a country’s capital than it does to learn how to play the violin. But nondeclarative memories stick around more easily. Once you’ve learned to ride a bicycle, you’re not likely to forget.

The types of amnesia

To understand how we remember things, it’s incredibly helpful to study how we forget—which is why neuroscientists study amnesia, the loss of memories or the ability to learn. Amnesia is usually the result of some kind of trauma to the brain, such as a head injury, a stroke, a brain tumor, or chronic alcoholism.

There are two main types of amnesia. The first, retrograde amnesia, occurs where you forget things you knew before the brain trauma. Anterograde amnesia is when brain trauma curtails or stops someone’s ability to form new memories.

The most famous case study of anterograde amnesia is Henry Molaison, who in 1953 had parts of his brain removed as a last-ditch treatment for severe seizures. While Molaison—known when he was alive as H.M.—remembered much of his childhood, he was unable to form new declarative memories. People who worked with him for decades had to re-introduce themselves with every visit.

By studying people such as H.M., as well as animals with different types of brain damage, scientists can trace where and how different kinds of memories form in the brain. It seems that short-term and long-term memories don’t form in exactly the same way, nor do declarative and procedural memories.

There’s no one place within the brain that holds all of your memories; different areas of the brain form and store different kinds of memories, and different processes may be at play for each. For instance, emotional responses such as fear reside in a brain region called the amygdala. Memories of the skills you’ve learned are associated with a different region called the striatum. A region called the hippocampus is crucial for forming, retaining, and recalling declarative memories. The temporal lobes, the brain regions that H.M. was partially missing, play a crucial role in forming and recalling memories.

How memories are formed, stored, and recalled

Since the 1940s scientists have surmised that memories are held within groups of neurons, or nerve cells, called cell assemblies. Those interconnected cells fire as a group in response to a specific stimulus, whether it’s your friend’s face or the smell of freshly baked bread. The more the neurons fire together, the more the cells’ interconnections strengthen. That way, when a future stimulus triggers the cells, it’s more likely that the whole assembly fires. The nerves’ collective activity transcribes what we experience as a memory. Scientists are still working through the details of how it works.

For a short-term memory to become a long-term memory, it must be strengthened for long-term storage, a process called memory consolidation. Consolidation is thought to take place by several processes. One, called long-term potentiation, consists of individual nerves modifying themselves to grow and talk to their neighboring nerves differently. That remodeling alters the nerves’ connections in the long term, which stabilizes the memory. All animals that have long-term memories use this same basic cellular machinery; scientists worked out the details of long-term potentiation by studying California sea slugs. However, not all long-term memories necessarily have to start as short-term memories.

The emerging and surprising view of how the enteric nervous system in our bellies goes far beyond just processing the food we eat

  • By Adam Hadhazy on February 12, 2010

How to have the second brain to remember more

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As Olympians go for the gold in Vancouver, even the steeliest are likely to experience that familiar feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach. Underlying this sensation is an often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain”.

A deeper understanding of this mass of neural tissue, filled with important neurotransmitters, is revealing that it does much more than merely handle digestion or inflict the occasional nervous pang. The little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls, partly determines our mental state and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body.

Although its influence is far-reaching, the second brain is not the seat of any conscious thoughts or decision-making.

“The second brain doesn’t help with the great thought processes…religion, philosophy and poetry is left to the brain in the head,” says Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology and author of the 1998 book The Second Brain (HarperCollins).

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system, Gershon says.

This multitude of neurons in the enteric nervous system enables us to “feel” the inner world of our gut and its contents. Much of this neural firepower comes to bear in the elaborate daily grind of digestion. Breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and expelling of waste requires chemical processing, mechanical mixing and rhythmic muscle contractions that move everything on down the line.

Thus equipped with its own reflexes and senses, the second brain can control gut behavior independently of the brain, Gershon says. We likely evolved this intricate web of nerves to perform digestion and excretion “on site,” rather than remotely from our brains through the middleman of the spinal cord. “The brain in the head doesn’t need to get its hands dirty with the messy business of digestion, which is delegated to the brain in the gut,” Gershon says. He and other researchers explain, however, that the second brain’s complexity likely cannot be interpreted through this process alone.

“The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon,” says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. “Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant,” Gershon says.

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve—a useful treatment for depression—may mimic these signals, Gershon says.

Given the two brains’ commonalities, other depression treatments that target the mind can unintentionally impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase serotonin levels, it’s little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome—which afflicts more than two million Americans—also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a “mental illness” of the second brain.

Scientists are learning that the serotonin made by the enteric nervous system might also play a role in more surprising diseases: In a new Nature Medicine study published online February 7, a drug that inhibited the release of serotonin from the gut counteracted the bone-deteriorating disease osteoporosis in postmenopausal rodents. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) “It was totally unexpected that the gut would regulate bone mass to the extent that one could use this regulation to cure—at least in rodents—osteoporosis,” says Gerard Karsenty, lead author of the study and chair of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center.

Serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. “If these genes are affected in autism,” he says, “it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities” in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood.

Down the road, the blossoming field of neurogastroenterology will likely offer some new insight into the workings of the second brain—and its impact on the body and mind. “We have never systematically looked at [the enteric nervous system] in relating lesions in it to diseases like they have for the” central nervous system, Gershon says. One day, perhaps there will be well-known connections between diseases and lesions in the gut’s nervous system as some in the brain and spinal cord today indicate multiple sclerosis.

Cutting-edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body’s immune response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders.

U.C.L.A.’s Mayer is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut “communicate” with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut’s nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders.

So for those physically skilled and mentally strong enough to compete in the Olympic Games—as well as those watching at home—it may well behoove us all to pay more heed to our so-called “gut feelings” in the future.

Is the analytical-creative separation true or false?

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Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Have you ever heard people say that they tend to be more of a right-brain or left-brain thinker? From books to television programs, you’ve probably heard the phrase mentioned numerous times. Or perhaps, you’ve even taken an online test to determine which type best describes you.

You’ve probably also spotted at least a few infographics on Pinterest or Facebook claiming to reveal your dominant brain hemisphere. And maybe you have come across a few articles or books suggesting you can unleash the hidden creativity of right brain thinking or the deductive logic of left-brain thinking.

People described as left-brain thinkers are told that they have strong math and logic skills. Those who are described as right-brain thinkers, on the other hand, are told that their talents are more on the creative side of things.  

Given the popularity of the idea of “right-brained” and “left-brained” thinkers, it might surprise you learn that this idea is just one of many myths about the brain.

How to have the second brain to remember more

Theory

According to the theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance, each side of the brain controls different types of thinking.   Additionally, people are said to prefer one type of thinking over the other.

For example, a person who is “left-brained” is often said to be more logical, analytical, and objective. A person who is “right-brained” is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective.  

In psychology, the theory is based on the lateralization of brain function. The brain contains two hemispheres that each perform a number of roles. The two sides of the brain communicate with one another via the corpus callosum.  

The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body while the right hemisphere controls those on the left. This is why damage to the left side of the brain, for example, might have an effect on the right side of the body.

History

So does one side of the brain control specific functions? Are people either left-brained or right-brained? Like many popular psychology myths, this one grew out of observations of the human brain that were then dramatically distorted and exaggerated.

The right brain left brain theory originated in the work of Roger W. Sperry, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981.   He studied brain functioning in patients who had their corpus callosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) surgically severed to treat refractory epilepsy.

However, these patients also experienced other symptoms after the communication pathway between the two sides of the brain was cut. For example, many split-brain patients found themselves unable to name objects that were processed by the right side of the brain but were able to name objects that were processed by the left-side of the brain. Based on this information, Sperry suggested that language was controlled by the left-side of the brain.  

Generally speaking, the left side of the brain tends to control many aspects of language and logic, while the right side tends to handle spatial information and visual comprehension.  

Research

Later research has shown that the brain is not nearly as dichotomous as once thought. For example, research has shown that abilities in subjects such as math are strongest when both halves of the brain work together.

Today, neuroscientists know that the two sides of the brain collaborate to perform a broad variety of tasks and that the two hemispheres communicate through the corpus callosum.   “No matter how lateralized the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together,” science writer Carl Zimmer explained in an article for Discover magazine.

“The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the phrase, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.”

In one study by researchers at the University of Utah, more than 1,000 participants had their brains analyzed in order to determine if they preferred using one side over the other.

The study revealed that while activity was sometimes higher in certain critical regions, both sides of the brain were essentially equal in their activity on average.

“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection,” explained the study’s lead author Dr. Jeff Anderson.

While the idea of right brain/left brain thinkers has been debunked, its popularity persists. So what exactly did this theory suggest?

Right Brain

According to the left-brain, right-brain dominance theory, the right side of the brain is best at expressive and creative tasks. Some of the abilities popularly associated with the right side of the brain include   :

  • Recognizing faces
  • Expressing emotions
  • Creating music
  • Reading emotions
  • Appreciating color
  • Using imagination
  • Being intuitive
  • Being creative

Left Brain

The left-side of the brain is considered to be adept at tasks that involve logic, language, and analytical thinking. The left-brain is described as being better at:  

  • Language
  • Logic
  • Critical thinking
  • Numbers
  • Reasoning

Persisting Myths

Researchers have demonstrated that right-brain/left-brain theory is a myth,   yet its popularity persists. Why? Unfortunately, many people are likely unaware that the theory is outdated. In fact, the idea seems to have taken on a mind of its own within popular culture.

From magazine articles to books to online quizzes, you are bound to see information suggesting that you can unleash the power of your mind if you just discover which side of your brain is stronger or more dominant.

Today, students might continue to learn about the theory as a point of historical interest—to understand how our ideas about how the brain works have evolved and changed over time as researchers have learned more about how the brain operates.

While over-generalized and overstated by popular psychology and self-help texts, understanding your strengths and weaknesses in certain areas can help you develop better ways to learn and study. For example, students who have a difficult time following verbal instructions (often cited as a right-brain characteristic) might benefit from writing down directions and developing better organizational skills.

The important thing to remember if you take one of the many left brain/right brain quizzes that you will likely encounter online is that they are entirely for fun and you shouldn’t place much stock in your results.