Taking Responsibility for Personal Brain Care (Part 1)

Introducing a student to the practicalities of caring for their own brain leads to the idea of taking personal responsibility for what goes on inside their head. Once the concept of brain care is seen as something to watch out for, students are in position to appreciate more readily the idea of taking responsibility for their own learning processes.

The brain, as a vital organ, sits so well hidden inside the skull to protect it from harm, that it is easy to forget it’s even there.  Obviously, it carries out many life-saving functions, but we are more concerned here with its learning potential and the ‘care’ that helps provide an optimum environment for learning. This is our next topic in the series about Effective Strategies and Tools for learning, sharing ideas you may like to try with your learners!

I always tease students with the idea that maybe it would be great to leave our brain at home sometime and let someone else look after it for the day. An absurd idea, but leads to a great discussion about the fact that we have to carry our brain with us wherever we go. It must therefore be our personal responsibility to look after it, begging the question, how? We are unable to remove it for a wash and brush up, so how do you look after something you can’t see?

My model brain comes in handy again here. We never get to see our own brain, or anyone else’s more than likely, so it helps to have a visual and tangible representation of what we are talking about in front of us. I point out that the model (an anatomically correct version for medical students) is made from quite hard plastic, but that the real brain is actually quite squishy! So why is it squishy?

Even fairly young children tend to be aware that we are mostly water, so quickly get the idea that the brain holds quite a lot of it. It doesn’t take long to think about what might happen if the brain dried up, as we sit eating grapes and raisins to make the point! ‘I don’t want a raisin brain’ is an easy concept to appreciate, as well as being a fun activity for everyone. We then tackle the solution by drinking water at regular intervals throughout the rest of the session, and discuss the individual’s regular drink habits.

I am often asked, ‘does it have to be water’? I usually reply, ‘not all the time’, but always explain that any other drink has to travel through the digestive system first to remove all the other ingredients before the water is available to the brain. So, we discuss the idea of water on its own being a quicker ‘fix’ if hot, tired, not thinking clearly, or for a headache for learning situations. Those who drink plenty of water can often think more clearly.

This is where I always encourage the student to ask the question why? I share the fact that if someone was pointing a finger at me saying, ‘you should drink more water’, I would feel inclined to ask ‘why’ I should, before feeling ready to comply! Most children and young people appreciate the science behind why it is important to drink more water, which gives them a greater motivation to take responsibility for keeping it hydrated.

Remember the ‘neurones’, or brain cells, that we introduced in the first article, and the fact that they function using electrical impulses? Well, think about what you already know in relation to electricity and water! Water is a great conductor of electricity, so only a hydrated brain will provide the right environment for neurones to communicate effectively, ie; only a hydrated brain will help you to think clearly! Many students do not drink enough during the day, (sometimes hampered by the fact they may not be allowed to go to the toilet during a lesson which makes for reluctant drinkers), so if you see a ‘dozy’ pupil, they may not have had a late night, they may be in urgent need of a drink of water!

The second aspect of brain care that can be discussed with students, is the importance of eating protein. Depending on age, we work out the different food types, identify what counts as ‘protein’ and how much of it the individual is eating. They would not normally be responsible for the food served at home, but it gives them the opportunity to consider if there is something they could do personally to improve the protein content of their diet.

Again though, I recommend that they ask why? Depending on age, I explain that all our body parts are made from protein, hair, skin, nails, organs, the lot. Amino acids, which are what protein breaks down into when we eat it, are used by the body to build new cells.  So, if we are eating very little protein or poor-quality protein, the consequences are that our body doesn’t have much to work with. This is significant for growing students in that the body needs those amino acids to add on all the extra cells required for growth, particularly bones. We are also more accident prone and in need of repair structures at that age too.

Importantly to our conversation here, every time we learn something new, a fresh connection is built in the brain between neurones! Without the building blocks to do this, (amino acids from digested protein), connections are either not created, or are of poor quality. Either way, learning becomes extremely difficult and retaining information almost impossible. If a student can appreciate the link between eating protein and effective learning, and consider their personal responsibility in this regard, they are more likely to pay attention to what they are eating.

Next time; we will continue the idea of student responsibility for brain care by looking at the science behind exercise and sleep.

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