Brain Drain
November 24, 2008 8:04 PM   Subscribe

What is the physical resource inside your brain that gets used up when you focus and concentrate for long hours? How do you beef up the ability to sustain concentrated thought, aside from diet/exercise/sleep?

Just FYI so I don't get the usual answers about how to "sharpen your mind". I exercise 5-10 hours a week, have a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep. I meditate almost daily. I play games, read books and use a flashcard program daily. I'm constantly studying. It's not that I'm not using my brain, it's just that it's not keeping up without relying on stimulants (mainly caffeine).
posted by parallax7d to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
For starters, sugar and oxygen. One of the fun, reverse engineer your brain in the privacy of your own home experiments in the book mind hacks, involves laying on the couch and relaxing, then having someone take your pulse at your neck, then giving you a difficult mental task, and taking your pulse again during that. They say you should expect a noticeable increase.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:19 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Very small amounts of glucose, consistently applied, might be able to help with the work your brain is doing by thinking.

The other major factor is, willpower - there does seem to be something to the idea of self-control as a depletable resource.

You'll probably find this article very interesting. Read the first link in it (The Science of Procrastination), it has several helpful suggestions, then the article I linked, which includes additional information/modification of the theory.

I think I've read articles that seem to suggest short naps revive ability to concentrate, which could be suggesting the self-control model instead.
Then again, naps have been very 'in' in the self-improvement movement recently, so their benefits have been widely touted.

I think the 'choice' thing mentioned in the linked article has helped me a lot (by which I mean, from situation - dire, to not so dire).
posted by Elysum at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's an article on brain food from psychology today. Seems like the brain uses mainly fats, with some sugars, and carbohydrates as well.
posted by jourman2 at 8:49 PM on November 24, 2008

Well, all neurotransmitters can be depleted, even the ones in your eyes (that's why you see afterimages after looking at solid color blocks for a long time). If you use the same neurons over and over again, they'll work less and less each time.

There are tons of known neurotransmitters, and they each have different metabolic pathways, so there isn't one thing you can do or eat that can increase overall brain 'endurance'.

One thing to keep in mind is that unlike the rest of your body, the brain runs entirely on glucose for energy, as most other chemicals are kept out of the brain by the blood brain barrier (otherwise almost everything would probably be psychoactive.)
posted by delmoi at 9:21 PM on November 24, 2008

There's something that is fixed by dreaming. No one really knows for sure what it is. It isn't so much something that gets used up as it is something that accumulates, but whatever it is, it isn't a metabolic product in the sense you're thinking of. What's known is that when you stay awake for long periods of time without being allowed to dream, too much of it accumulates and you begin to go crazy.

Possible it has to do with an increase in disorder in your memories. Dreaming seems to have to do with cleaning up memory.
posted by Class Goat at 9:44 PM on November 24, 2008

Attention restoration theory (S. Kaplan, 1995) proposes that exposure to nature reduces mental fatigue, or more precisely, directed attention fatigue. S. Kaplan (1995) noted that many settings, stimuli, and tasks in modern life draw on the capacity to deliberately direct attention or pay attention. The information-processing demands of everyday life—traffic, phones, conversations, problems at work, and complex decisions—all take their toll, resulting in mental fatigue, a state characterized by inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity. In contrast, natural settings and stimuli such as landscapes and animals seem to effortlessly engage our attention, allowing us to attend without paying attention. For this and a number of other reasons, S. Kaplan suggested, contact with nature provides a respite from deliberately directing one’s attention.

Indeed, there is growing empirical evidence of the attentionally restorative effects of natural settings. Evidence of cognitively rejuvenating effects comes from a variety of “natural” settings, including wilderness areas (Hartig, Mang,&Evans, 1991; R. Kaplan, 1984), prairies (Miles, Sullivan,& Kuo, 1998), community parks (Canin, 1991; Cimprich, 1993), views of nature through windows (Ovitt, 1996; Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995), and even rooms with interior plants (Lohr, Pearson-Mims, & Goodwin, 1996). Moreover, these studies have demonstrated links between contact with nature and more effective attentional functioning in a variety of populations—AIDS caregivers, cancer patients, college students, prairie restoration volunteers, participants in a wilderness program, and employees of large organizations.

[PDF] Kuo, F & Sullivan, W. "Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment via Mental Fatigue" Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33 No. 4, July 2001, 543-571.
posted by salvia at 10:06 PM on November 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Salvia, I think that's referring to fatigue over a period of months, not over a period of hours.
posted by Class Goat at 11:03 PM on November 24, 2008

What is the physical resource inside your brain that gets used up when you focus and concentrate for long hours?

I've never found a compelling answer for this extremely interesting question, and believe me, I've looked for it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:08 PM on November 24, 2008

Salvia, I think that's referring to fatigue over a period of months, not over a period of hours.

Class Goat, some studies on this stuff are, but not all. Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991 used a short exhaustion and recovery time. Participants did 40 minutes of tasks to induce cognitive fatigue then had a 40 minute break. Those who took a walk in nature scored higher (p < .01) on proofreading tests than the other two groups, which scored similarly (one group walked in an "urban" area and another had "passive relaxation" with some magazines and a radio available).

The other study described in that article is actually cooler, I think. They do pre- and post-testing for a four- to seven-day vacation (wilderness backpacking vacation, non-wilderness vacation, or no vacation). Backpackers improve in their ability to proofread, while the other two groups declined (p < .09; no diffs beforehand; also, can I say that I love psychometrically valid tests for things like happiness?). The really interesting thing is that they find significant differences in Overall Happiness at a 21 day follow-up (they didn't test proofreading in the follow-up), which "although necessarily a tentative finding... speak[s] to the question of whether natural settings 'inoculate' people against stress, attentional demands, and the like" (p. 22).
posted by salvia at 12:17 AM on November 25, 2008

Don't have an answer to the question, but the Japanese have a great word for this, やる気 -- "yaruki"; "yaru" is the verb to do/accomplish and "ki" is the 'spirit' from "aikido".
posted by troy at 12:53 AM on November 25, 2008

I don't really have a direct answer to your question. Even if you don't really want to use stimulants or drugs, the following articles might be interesting.

Here's an article about this guy who tried using Provigil and reported feeling amazingly focussed.

And here's another with some commentary on the previous article.

Now, I've never tried any of these and don't plan to, even though they do seem to have some amazing effects. Atleast not until we learn more about who they work.
posted by ogami at 2:04 AM on November 25, 2008

There's something that is fixed by dreaming. No one really knows for sure what it is. It isn't so much something that gets used up as it is something that accumulates, but whatever it is, it isn't a metabolic product in the sense you're thinking of.

Seconding this, as I've experienced lack of REM sleep first hand, I think -- and of its aftereffects.

I went for a couple years trying to work two jobs, one of which was very stressful, and realized that I was mentally foggy a lot of the time, and I realized I was chronically sleep-deprived. So I started cutting back on one of the jobs so I could sleep more.

Then for a couple weeks, I started having really, really vivid dreams, really frequently. Which startled me at first, because I only infrequently remember my dreams. But I read up a little and learned that if you go through a period where you're getting not as much sleep, your body will adjust by increasing the number of times it tries to send you into a REM state, because that's how important the REM state is. I went through about a week of psychedelic dreams while I was catching up on that sleep loss, and then my body adjusted back to its default dream level and everything evened out.

The thing about the REM state is, you can be brought out of it, but still be asleep. Is there any chance that where you live is noisy enough that you may be getting brought out of a REM state, but not woken all the way up?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on November 25, 2008

delmoi, I was taught that the human brain can and will in fact run on ketone bodies. Even under fasting conditions, it is not limited to what is available with gluconeogenesis. Perhaps ikkyu2 can clarify?
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 1:18 PM on November 25, 2008

Re NucleophilicAttack -
I understood that the brain can switch to using ketone bodies under conditions of fasting and ketosis, but that there's still a minimum that must be supplied by glucose - ah, wiki has it:

"In time the brain reduces its glucose requirements from 120g to 40g per day."

So, I think this can be provided for a while via stored supplies of glucose (from the liver??).

If you're not in ketosis, preferred fuel is always glucose.
posted by Elysum at 3:12 PM on November 26, 2008

- Much of the dry weight of the brain is fat.

- The glia cells support the neurons by supplying necessary nutrients & remove toxic chemicals before they can build up.

- The myelin sheath wrap around the axons and, basically, insulates them so the electrochemical reaction that is thought doesn't dissipate into the brain. Myelin is 80% fat, 20% protein.

- In a recent study with a bunch of kids with ADD who were given fish oil several times a day, there were noticeable difference between the kids who got it & the kids who didn't. "severe ADHD reduced to 28% as did severe impulsivity, and severe inattention fell to just 17% of the cases."

- Adenosine builds up during the day & some scientists believe that causes you to be sleepy & why you need more sleep when you've been awake longer. Caffeine inhibits the functioning of this chemical, so it still builds up, but doesn't do its job in making you sleepy.

- Oxygen is very important for brain functioning. A bit of exercise, sort of like the Japanese do to begin the work day - just to get the blood flowing - can do wonders.

- During periods if intense concentration, the body produces tiny amounts of the, otherwise poisonous chemical, Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide expands blood vessels & allows oxygen to, briefly, flow more freely into an area where it's needed. Now, you can't actually get Nitric Oxide over the counter, but I have seen some of the precursors (or what I assume are precursors) sold to body builders for the same reason - expanded blood vessels can bring in more oxygen, which helps with their workout.

- A lot of people mention glucose, but any kind of sugar just gives me a sugar high & then crash. To optimize energy throughout the day, follow the Glycemic Index and eat food that won't cause a blood sugar spike. I find that in the long run, protein gives me more energy than sugar.
posted by Muffy at 8:42 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

What is the physical resource inside your brain that gets used up when you focus and concentrate for long hours?

This kinda sounds like a request for a miracle cure for attention and energy problems. I'd recommend cocaine or methamphetamine.

I don't think that neuroscience is anywhere near actually answering your question.

I think that the best answer to your question involves turning the question on its head. It's not a resource that gets used up as you concentrate-- it's a resource that builds up as you concentrate.

GABA is a primarily inhibitory neurotransmitter that gets used up when you sleep. During your waking hours, it slowly builds up and inhibits neural activity. One effect of caffeine is the reduction of the release or activity of GABA.

But any explanation of brain activity that falls back on the activity of one or two neurotransmitters is wildly incomplete. Brains are, uh, complicated. And I'm not really qualified to answer your question, seeing as how I'm not a neuroscientist. Still, I think you might find the beginning of an answer to your question by reading up on GABA. (Glucose and oxygen are of course important. But if your attention problems are because of a deficit of either, you should get to an emergency room pronto. And get somebody else to drive.)
posted by nathan v at 4:28 PM on December 3, 2008

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