If you unrolled your brain (and we hope you don’t try), it would be almost a square yard in size. That’s how impressive your brain is, smarty. We have to roll it up to fit it in your head.
But your mind is more than simply your brain. When we say the word “mind,” we’re not only talking about measurable things like memory and focus. We’re also talking about incredible things, amazing things, intangible things that all make up the measure of your mind.
Things like thought, creativity, wonder and neuronal energy. Willpower and character. Your principles, values, decision-making and sense of being centered. Your well-groundedness. All of these things are better taken care of when you more carefully focus and take care of your mind.
What is energy, and how do we burn it up and burn it out? Is there a simple definition?
Depends on who you are.
If you’re the Earth, you get yours from the sun. If you’re a whole civilization, you get it from resources like fossil fuels and renewable alternatives.
In physics, energy is a vast power, small or large, that heats, transfers or converts one property or action onto something else.
There’s kinetic energy, the kind that moves. There’s potential energy, which is stored away until it’s time to bring it out and play. Things like gravity and magnetism are potential energy.
There’s radiant energy, like a day at the beach trying not to get a sunburn. There’s thermal energy when things heat up. Throw a steak on the grill and we’ll talk about that one.
There’s even chemical energy released when you fill up your gas tank and step on the pedal to turn fuel into movement so you can ease on down the road.
Energy comes in many forms. For people like you and me, energy comes from food.
Ginkgo: Narrow-Minded Approach?
For decades, particularly when “herbs for the brain” come into play, people flock and find favor with a particular favorite, Ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo has been well-written about through the years, and we certainly can’t find fault with its marketing mavens, but when it comes to the challenges of contemporary mind and memory, it’s a peculiar love affair indeed.
This towering tree from China and Japan can reach heights of 50 meters. That’s 160 feet. No wonder its reputation is gargantuan. The Japanese call it gin kyo, meaning “silver apricot.”
Ginkgo supports normal blood flow to the brain, and that seems like it should be an elementary objective, right? Give the brain more blood and you get more oxygen to its tissues. You’re giving it more room to breathe, essentially. It seems to make sense.
But simply assuming good circulation and tissue oxygenation will turn immediately into newfound memory is really just a shot in the dark. The studies often don’t bear out that end point. Oxygen might make your brain more alert, but that’s not the same thing as making it work better.
That’s probably why the science on Ginkgo shows that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Increasing the oxygenation to our brains could also be done with heavy breathing or even exercise, so at the very best, it’s a band-aid over the issue.
Healthy oxygen and blood flow are great. We couldn’t do without them. But Ginkgo can’t always address the root cause of a scattered mind in today’s fast world, which is the occasional stress we all come up against.
Back to Basics. Back to Brahmi.
Ayurveda, which is wise, revered and thousands of years old, taught us that certain plants and practices can be used to achieve a Sattvic state. Sattva, Ayurveda says, is purity of thought and purity of mind. It’s a place where your thoughts, speech and actions all synchronize in a pure and productive way.
They believed memory enhancement came along with that, but they also felt that improving your memory was the least impressive thing you could do with plants – you could actually do much better than that.
If you came in to see an Ayurvedic master and you were cursing too much, (shame on you, potty mouth), you’d be given some plants and tips to restore your sattva. Your purity. Your mindfulness. It would be the herbal equivalent of, “Settle down, big fella.”
You see, besides memory, Ayurveda was also interested in your mood, your quality of life and the ultimate of prescriptions – your ability to experience joy.
Among the most powerful of Sattvic plants was one called Brahmi, which is now commonly called Bacopa, a plant aligned and alluding to their concept of joyfulness and knowledge. The name itself served as a reminder that it stood above all other mind plants as the ultimate in plant medicines meant for a withered attitude and a shrinking soul.
Picture meditating and clearing the mind. That’s what Brahmi offers. Think of that still moment after you take a big sigh when you realize it’s all going to be okay. That’s what Brahmi brings. Bacopa is used to bring people peace.
In a more contemporary language, we say that Bacopa brings flexibility to the mind and plasticity to its ability. And that, in turn, gives us more unrolled area for retention and memory.
Do Foods and Herbs Really Affect the Mind?
Any 1960’s hippie at Berkeley will tell you: herbs affect the consciousness, man. There was a whole counter-culture revolution based on that theory. My old Uncle Steve is still living down in his somewhat-hazy, incense-scented basement testing it out. Far out lava lamp, Uncle Steve. That thing’s been lit since 1972.
Point is, if anyone ever rolls their eyes when you say that herbs and foods can move the mind, ask them what they ate or craved the last time they felt sad or upset. We call those things “comfort foods” for a reason. They comfort us. They move our mind to a different state of being.
Macaroni and cheese. A big bowl of ice cream. Chocolate, hops and barley. Fermented grapes. In our culture today, we’ve made these things our mind medicines.
The herbs we explore, the foods we eat, all affect our consciousness. They always have. They always will.
Medhyrasayanas: Oh, To Be Young Again!
To be labeled a Rasayana in Ayurveda is a gold star. Today we call them “adaptogens,” or things that bring us back into balance. Because face it, there’s only so much ice cream we can eat.
Ayurveda took it a step further. They said there were also Medhyrasayanas, specific balancers for the mind itself. When Ayurveda talked about “anti-aging,” they were never worried about the wrinkles on your face. They could care less if you looked a little older. They took that as a badge of honor. When they said “anti-aging,” they were talking about keeping your mind young and flexible.
In fact, the mind was so important to Ayurveda, it was one of their pillars and their starting points. Every problem you have, they said, always begins in your mind, with the occasional stress we bump into.
From there, it messes up your digestion (think butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, or losing your appetite when you’re sad), and once your digestion slows down, they said, the rest of your body has a hard time getting the nutrients it needs. No nutrients to the right places, problems arise.
Medhyrasayanas, they said, were the essential, starting-place nourishment for the mind.
Ayurvedic Go-To’s for Today’s Too-Busy Brain
Along with the Bacopa we already talked about, Gotu Kola was a go-to choice for supporting a healthy mind. Gotu Kola leaves are a favorite food of elephants. And you know how they say elephants live long and remember well!?
Triphala supports normal digestion and elimination, and that’s a good thing, because toxins affect the mind too. Don’t believe me? Have three beers and tell me how clear your thoughts are.
Ashwagahdha, their King of Rasayanas, rejuvenates adrenal function, releases occasional stress and boosts energy, all good things that tie into mature, modern mindfulness.
These wise plants didn’t spend their time worrying like Ginkgo did about blood flow to the brain. These were the plants and fruits the monks would seek to nourish their bodies, nourish their spirits, and to quiet their chattering, overactive minds.
To turn down that mind chatter, to stop the committee from talking in your head when you’re trying to unwind, calm down, and get to sleep at night, the herbs above were their regular go-to’s.
Less Stress, More Memory
It’s no surprise that stress pushes the pause button on memory. Try to remember where you put your glasses and your car keys when you’re 15 minutes late for work in the morning.
Gotu Kola and Bacopa attempt to support the sensitivity you experience as a result of outside input. Drama kings and drama queens, pay attention. These herbs address too much oversensitivity and too much stimulus to the brain. Because when your brain is quiet and calm, it’s so much easier to concentrate on everything else.
And that’s important because there’s only one way to make new memories – repetition. However, the only thing that makes repetition possible is focus. The only thing that makes focus possible is a quiet, peaceful, un-chattering mind.
Blood flow to the brain and oxygenation of tissues are certainly important to consciousness. Press hard enough on someone’s carotid artery, and the brain goes into neutral. Again, don’t try this at home, unless Mr. Spock is on hand giving you lessons on your old-school Vulcan nerve pinch.
Giving your brain tissue enough oxygen via blood flow is great. It helps with your focus and mental alertness. But your memories depend on a lot of moments. A calm outlook. A quiet mind that doesn’t overreact to the dozen downfalls of the day.
There’s where the real support for your memory begins. Not simply from getting more blood flow to your brain.
Thanks for the nice thoughts, Ginkgo. But the modern mind is so much more.