Brain-mind-body training – in the blueberry forest

I am often asked for brain training tips. The most important thing to grasp is that the brain is not an isolated organ island above the neck. The physiological brain-body-mind connection is constantly in play. When well-rested I am vigilant and notice things I miss when fatigued. A human’s physiological state affects all activities. In addition, motor, and cognitive functions, as well as mental and emotional states interact. I often think of this entity as a kaleidoscope that changes form and colors in response to a wide range of a person’s internal, complexly intertwined functional states and surrounding environmental factors.

Concerning brain training, honing the brain-mind-body connection is essential. Doing different types of everyday life activities is a cheap and always at-hand-way of keeping fit and on the side, life-long learning takes place. To demonstrate this in practice I share in this blog my everyday life experiences by looking at them from the neurocognitive perspective.

A few days ago, I was in the forest picking blueberries. I predicted beforehand that the berries will be small, but sweet, due to the over one-month long summer heat wave reaching record high values of +32oC meaning 90oF (yes from the Finnish perspective air temperatures over +25oC / 77oF are defined as hot weather) without much rain. I was able to predict this because I already had in my brain’s long-term memory experience knowledge on how weather affects berry size. I also had the taste memory: small berries are often sweeter than the big ones of rainy summers.

A crude map of brain lobe areas under the skull. (Personal photo album)

Before heading into the woods, I tapped into my brain’s memory bank and activated an earlier stored mental map on the best blueberry sites in the near-by forest. With my “mind’s eyes” I was soon looking at a set of memory films of my last year’s berry picking trails. For this to happen, I had to (of course) remember that I was picking berries also last summer. With the help of this mental map, I navigated up a rather steep hill to last year’s best berry bushes. My prediction of berry size was spot on. Bushes were blue with small, sweet tasting berries, but not all yet ripe.

During navigation my brain’s parietal and occipital lobes’ neural networks taking part in visuospatial skills were getting fitness training. I also needed the activity of the frontal lobes’ neural networks as they are important for fine-tuning my behaviour in the forest and making sure that I am aware of what I am doing and where I am. This is called situational awareness. (On the photo of me I have drawn a crude site map of the different brain lobes).

Combining motor, cognitive and memory functions

Before I reached the berries, I had to try to focus on the forest floor. The terrain is rocky and lurking under moss, ferns, fallen tree branches and berry bushes there are holes that can be quite deep. Adding old fallen tree trunks and tree roots into the mixture provides a natural challenging environment for maintaining and further developing walking skills and doing balance exercises. Body bending and squatting, some leaping over tree stumps, balancing on top of stones, using arms to pull aside low-hanging branches and at the same time carrying the bucket for berries, all these activities require the ability to fine-tune and combine a wide range of different types of motor functions. They require activation of not only brain parietal lobe motor functions, but also the neighboring sensory cortex receives information via the sensory nerves of limbs and body on how I am positioned in the 3 D environment at a certain moment. The cerebellum (small brain) and brain stem also have an important role in ensuring balance and coordination of movements. Cognitive effort is needed to adjust movement accordingly to environmental, as well as task goal demands.

All senses must be in alert mode. Eyes and ears capture important features from the berry picking environment: Information of terrain features, visual scanning of bushes is needed to find the best berry picking sites.

Nature is full of sounds. The wind rustling tree leaves, symphonies of bird songs, the sound of moss squashing under the boot. This year I hear the typical crunchy sound of the forest floor indicating extreme dryness. My father taught me the meaning of the sound when I was a little girl and that fire spreads in a dry forest fast as lightning. So, while hunting for the best berry bushes I also scanned the ground for any signs of recent campfires or cigarette stumps. Luckily there were none.

The skin senses wind and its direction, tells of air humidity. Are there signs of a thunderstorm approaching? In a dry forest I consciously do some sniffing: Do I smell smoke? I use my finger pressure sensation and mouth taste buds to decide if berries are ripe for picking.

The upper arms from fingers to shoulder get a lot of good exercise. Nimble and agile fingers are needed in a wide range of everyday activities. Training dexterity of both hands during berry picking is something I always do.

Let’s not forget feet and ankles. Their sensing systems are important for identifying characteristics of walking ground and help to adjust stepping and balance. Feet are our always available transportation system, so berry picking is also a great feet-ankle drill.

Planning, decisions and picking strategy in the blueberry bushes

At the berry picking site I had to make a lot of decisions that might seem trivial, especially to the person who has some experience in berry picking. I had to decide what route to use to achieve the best harvest outcome. Again, I used knowledge I’d stored in my long-term memory: I first have a look at the bushes to learn which way the branches bow. As the berries are heavy for the little twigs, I bend down and look under the nodding twigs to see the berries in more detail. Keeping this picking strategy in mind, I already had my blue trousers on as squatting, sometimes even sitting, as well as crawling in the bushes is my picking style. It gives the best berry harvest and prevents back pain. Quite a buzz in the crisscrossing neural networks transferring information from one brain area to another is needed for carrying out a wide variety of different body, leg, and arm positions. In this working mode I concretely observe how my hand-eye-leg co-ordination skills improve. As the hours go by the speed with which berries drop into my bucket quickens.

In the berry bushes. (Photo Michael Müller, Family album)

This summer, I had to do a lot of berry hunting in the bushes to find berries that despite the lack of rain were big enough for picking. I am still optimistic that we will get some rain and it is smart to wait a few more weeks for bigger blueberries. So, I added information on promising forest sites to check in a week or so into my long-term memory, thus upgrading it.

I had to do a lot of arms flinging and hand slapping to keep mosquitoes from biting me. This meant dividing my visual and auditory attention to the insects following me. They were a distraction affecting my real-time cognitive performance. I was reminded of this with a concrete example: I was already heading back to the summer cottage and had weird crawling sensations on my back. My interpretation was, that I was perspiring heavily due to exercise in hot weather and sweat was dripping down my back.

At the cottage my husband said: “Kiti, your back is full of ants. You have probably been either sitting on or near an ant nest!” I had not seen any nest. Considering the army of ants on my back side it had to be in plain sight. I had “glued” my attentional resources to blueberries and missed the ant nest. This inability to perceive something relevant in the surroundings is called inattentional blindness. I also forgot to consider information I already had: the forest has many impressive examples of ants as home builders.

As I wait for the blueberries to further ripen and hopefully also grow bigger, I have been taking leisure walks in the forest. This also provides a lot of opportunities to train the brain-mind-body connected activities. I also let my attention wander in the forest and my eyes and ears capture a lot of activities going on. Again, this summer I have spotted a mother duck and eight chicks walking with waddling steps in the bushes eating blueberries. It might be my old friend from last year with her new chick litter as the ducks are using the same route as last summer. Seeing the ducks again this summer was a happy moment. It is also joyful to hear newly hatched hungry chicks twittering in nests and I enjoy watching woodpeckers busily drilling holes on tree trunks while hunting for tree larvae goodies.

Those of you who know Finnish (or rely on a translator app): I recently wrote in my Tiede-lehti Tiedekokki (Science Cook) blog on how Cooking Vegetable Soup trains Brain-Mind-Body. Have a read!

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