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Cool Jobs
COOL JOBS: EXERCISE BRAIN-CHANGER

What do aerobic exercise and memory have in common? According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, more than you think. Her passion for the human brain, memory, and exercise are inspiring people to work out for better brain health. Episode filmed live at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.Learn More

Wendy Suzuki:

Great to see everybody, wow! So much fun to be here in Cool Jobs.

Wendy Suzuki:

So, I get to tell you about my cool job, which is to examine, explore, investigate, and probe one of the most amazing structures that exist on this planet, the human brain.

Wendy Suzuki:

I’m a neuroscientist, and like a lot of the presenters out here, and like all of you, I’m interested in math and science. But when I was your age, I didn’t know what else to do, except for maybe be a doctor. Until I learned about neuroscience. And I learned about neuroscience that very first day when I was a freshmen in college.

Wendy Suzuki:

And I took a class called The Brain and its Potential, and my professor showed us a real human brain. It was the first time I saw it and I was mesmerized. I was so mesmerized that I thought I would bring one to show you. Do you want to see it? Okay. I’m glad you’re sitting here, don’t worry.

Wendy Suzuki:

Human brain, a real human brain. Okay. Can you guys see it up there? Yeah, absolutely. Here we go. Every time I’d pick it up, it’s amazing, because it’s much heavier than it looks. And I’m here to tell you that what I’m holding in my hands is the most complex, amazing structure known to mankind. This is a structure that allows us to see, to feel, to think, to smell and to appreciate a joke. It lets us do everything.

Wendy Suzuki:

Let me give you a quick brain tour. So, if this was my brain, it would be sitting in my head like this. This is the front of my brain. This would be the back of my brain. Let’s start back here. This is called the occipital lobe. Anybody know what the occipital lobe does? Vision. Very good.

Wendy Suzuki:

Okay. We’re going to jump up to the front of the brain. This is the part that’s right behind your eyes, frontal lobe. What does that do?

Wendy Suzuki:

Your thoughts. Personality, thoughts, working memory, it allows you to pay attention. So you don’t go with monks that could meditate for hours and hours at a time? When you put them in a MRI magnet, where you can see the activity, their frontal lobes light up when they’re meditating, because that allows you to focus your attention.

Wendy Suzuki:

And finally, we went to the occipital lobe, frontal lobe. This lobe down here is called the temporal lobe. It’s my favorite lobe, and I’m going to show you my favorite structure by flipping the brain over like this, so you can see the bottom part of the brain. Right here, tucked into the very bottom of the brain is a structure called the hippocampus.

Wendy Suzuki:

What did I say? Hippocampus. Hippocampus is critical for longterm memory. I want you to remember that structure. We’re going to come back to that structure. But for the last 20 years, I’ve been trying to study and understand how the hippocampus allows us to learn and retain new longterm memories for facts and events.

Wendy Suzuki:

And before I put this down, because you guys are so close, I just want to come around and show it to you a little bit closer, so you can get a really bird’s eye view. You see all the nooks and crannies in there? That is the cerebral cortex. That means all of this surface area can be smushed into a littler area. So you get lots of computational power.

Wendy Suzuki:

Take a picture? Smile.

Wendy Suzuki:

Got it? Okay, good. All right. Can you see it?

Speaker 2:

Who’s brain is that?

Wendy Suzuki:

Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know whose brain this is. Okay, we’ll have a chance to come down a little bit later.

Speaker 3:

It’s probably a dead person.

Wendy Suzuki:

Yeah, it’s probably a dead person. So I’m going to put that down now. Good answer. I’m going to keep that there.

Wendy Suzuki:

I want to tell you about one of the coolest things about being a neuroscientist, being a scientist in general. What it allows you to do is, you know how sometimes things make you go, “Hmm.” Well, when you’re a scientist, you could actually answer that question.

Wendy Suzuki:

So I wanted to tell you about something that made me go “Hmm,” and how it kind of started a whole new research area in my lab. So this came about not because I went to the library and I started reading books, or I went to hear a talk. I went to the gym. Neuroscientists have to stay in shape too.

Wendy Suzuki:

And I needed to get in the best shape, I wanted to get in the best shape of my life. And I went to the gym, and I found this class that I loved, and it kept me coming back and back to the gym. It’s a class called Inten Sati. Inten stands for intention, and Sati means awareness.

Wendy Suzuki:

So in this class we use physical movements from kickboxing, and dance, and yoga, and martial arts. But the cool thing is that each movement is paired with a verbal affirmation. So in kickboxing you just punch, right and left. But in Inten Sati we say, “I am strong now.” And the audience or the participants say it back to you.

Wendy Suzuki:

So you do that for a whole hour, for 20 different moves and affirmations. And it makes you feel like a million bucks. So I went to the gym, and I started going to three, four, five times a week. And I was getting stronger, and I had more stamina. And I was in a great mood, but you know what else happened? When I went back to work, my memory worked better. I could pay attention better. I could write better. And I’m like, I feel like my brain is stronger too. Hm.

Wendy Suzuki:

I went to the literature and it turns out that there are all these studies showing that if you have rats and mice run in a little running wheel, you know what happens? Their brains change. Their brains actually get thicker. The brain cells called neurons grow more extensions, and the electrical activity in those rat and mouse brains get enhanced.

Wendy Suzuki:

You get more activity when you stimulate then in the rats that were just sitting around and not running in the environment. The most amazing thing I found was that they found that rats running in a running wheel actually had more new cells born into their brain, but not in all parts of the brain, only in my favorite part of the brain, which is? The hippocampus, that’s right.

Wendy Suzuki:

So more new, shiny new hippocampus cells are born in your hippocampus when you exercise. I thought, aha, that must be what’s happening. I’m exercising and I’m getting more hippocampus cells.

Wendy Suzuki:

But I’m a scientist. One study, one person doesn’t make a whole experiment. So I decided to use my students as my Guinea pigs. And here’s what I did.

Wendy Suzuki:

So I decided to teach a new class called Can Exercise, Change Your Brain. This is at NYU, I work down the road at NYU. And for this, I wanted to bring exercise into the classroom so the students could exercise and feel the physical benefits of exercise. And then I could tell them about what exercise could be doing to their brains.

Wendy Suzuki:

So I actually went to the gym, I got certified to teach Inten Sati, and every single class was an hour of Inten Sati that I taught the kids, together with an hour-and-a-half lecture discussion on what exercise was doing.

Wendy Suzuki:

The other thing that I did is, I tested all their memories at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. And I asked, did they get smarter? Did their memories get better compared to another class that learned about neuroscience, but didn’t do any exercise?

Wendy Suzuki:

You know what happened? They got smarter. My class got significantly better on learning new things, putting new things in longterm memory. So here is the bottom line. Exercise is not only good for your body and your muscles and your heart, it’s good for your brain. Okay. So you guys going to go and work out? Yes? All right!

Wendy Suzuki:

Got the beat? Four, three, punches right and left! Go right, left, right, left, very good. Here’s the affirmation. I exercise to change my brain.

Wendy Suzuki:

You say?

Speaker 4:

I exercise to change to my brain.

Wendy Suzuki:

I say, my brain can change the world. You say?

Speaker 4:

My brain can change the world.

Wendy Suzuki:

I say my brain can change this world. You say?

Speaker 4:

My brain can change this world.

Wendy Suzuki:

I exercise to change my brain. You say?

Speaker 4:

I exercise to change my brain.

Wendy Suzuki:

Give yourself a hand, woo! Who’s going to the gym tomorrow? Okay, you guys rock. You guys on the balcony, you rock. Thank you so much.

Speaker 5:

Give it up for Wendy Suzuki everybody. Huge round of applause.

Cool Jobs
COOL JOBS: EXERCISE BRAIN-CHANGER

What do aerobic exercise and memory have in common? According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, more than you think. Her passion for the human brain, memory, and exercise are inspiring people to work out for better brain health. Episode filmed live at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.Learn More

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