Want to up your IQ. Right now, right here? Get you some BDNF my friends: Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor – nature’s ‘miracle-gro’ for the brain.
So how do you get it, and why is it so important for autism?
Moving while problem solving – the harder and more sustained the movement the better – makes our brains produce a protein that neuro-scientists call BDNF – Brain Derived (I.e. produced by the brain) Neurotrophic (I.e. growing of neurons, aka brain cells), Factor (effect). Moving while problem solving involves, for example, crossing rough country where one has to think how to place one’s feet, or climbing, or bouncing (don’t fall!), or swimming (don’t sink) or paddling (don’t slip!) and so on. The brain needs to be on high alert during this kind of activity and so it has to produce more neurons, more brain cells, to cope. This makes you smarter. Amazing.
And rather like physical workouts where you keep burning calories for quite a while after you finish, the same applies here. You keep producing more neurons after you finish for a bit. So if you pick up some more of this kind of movement later in the day, you double up on the brain effect. And you get some bonus side effects too – any hard exercise sends a lot of blood – i.e. oxygen – to your brain, and that also helps with making things run better up there in the old noggin. And you get physically fitter and more dexterous (i.e. gross and fine motor skill co ordination) too.
Why did our brains evolve this way? We are hunters and gatherers, remember. Academics, who typically don’t hunt and gather much, love to write about our hunter gatherer ‘ancestors’ as if they weren’t there any more. Um…sorry Mr Anthropologist and Mr Geneticist – hunter-gatherer tribes still inhabit large chunks of the planet and we are not removed from them like some other species. We are the same…um…species. When you hunt you have to make really important decisions all the time – are you following the right tracks? Did the animal go this way or that way? How am I going to get across that swamp/mountain/thicket without breaking my leg or worse? Are there large predators or other dangers around I need to avoid? A hunt lasts hours and hours- the brain has to be on high alert for the whole time. When it comes time to shoot your arrow or throw the spear – there are a whole bunch of factors that can decide whether you hit or miss and waste all that energy you just expended. Then you have to skin, butcher and carry the animal home.
The same applies to gathering. Make the wrong decision on a plant and what was hopefully going to fed or heal you might end up poisoning you. You have to climb to reach fruits; dig through hard ground to get roots that you might have to identify by certain cracks in the earth; wade into lakes to get water lily and reed roots; avoid predators, snakes, nasty bitey insect things, keep the kids amused – oh and by the way you’re teaching them the whole time how to do this – and then again you have to carry the whole lot home, while checking animal tracks to report back to the hunters when you get home what animals they might have a crack at tomorrow.
So its pretty clear why our brains evolved this handy IQ booster we now call BDNF. But what’s the autism connection – I mean, every human brain benefits from this surely? Yes they all do, for sure – one of the worst experiments in recent American schools was in the early 2000s when the “No Child Left Behind Policy” was brought in, that ironically ended up leaving every child behind. Basically the policy cut PE and recess (play time – i.e. BDNF time) in favor of tests, test and more tests. Academic scores plummeted. One school however, did something rather clever: Naperville School District in Illinois – which had a rather visionary PE teacher called Phil Lawler who happened to know his neuro-science, especially the magic of BDNF. He managed to get the schools to introduce something called ‘Zero Hour’ into the beginning of the school day: an hour of moving and problem solving (think obstacle courses, hopping, skipping, bouncing and climbing games and so on). In 1999, with the project well in place, Naperville School students scored in the top 10 per cent in the world in standardized math and science tests – with the rest of schools in the USA trailing in somewhere in the 30s…
So – the autism connection. At Horse Boy, whether working with horses in our equine therapy approach (Horse Boy Method) or in our school and home program Movement Method – we are all about neuro-plasticity, i.e. building and optimizing that jolly useful thing we call the brain. In previous blogs we’ve talked about how to jump start the Cerebellum and build the Purkinje Cells that get the different parts of the brain talking to each other properly and therefore firing up the Pre Frontal Cortex (our logic and reasoning center). We’ve talked about how balancing motions activate the Vestibular System which is all about attention and long term learning. We’ve talked about hos rhythmic rocking motions create oxytocin that calms down the Cell Danger Response that so afflicts kids on the Spectrum and which blocks learning.
But the BDNF – this makes all those processes work exponentially better. Like a fuel injection engine, running on the highest grade gasoline possible, upgraded from an old carburetter-based chugga-chugga engine that works but….not as well. And the problem in Autism world is that so many of the therapies are about sitting – the last thing most autistic kids want to do. A lot of ABA takes place in rooms, with kids being made sit as desks no matter how much they scream and protest and try to communicate (by melting down and trying to escape, or ‘going inside’ and shutting down) that they want to MOVE! Their brains know that they need this movement. But the therapists often don’t understand how movement and the brain are so vitally connected, and the result can be stress and misery. Certainly not effective long term learning.
Kids are given drugs to make them sit still so then they get no chance to build the brain the hunter gatherer way – i.e. the authentic human way. And this is worse for autistic and ADD/ADHD kids because so many teacher/therapists and sometimes even parents just don’t want to engage in this level of physical activity.
But you have to, to be successful. And by successful I’m talking about young adult autistic and add/adhd kids starting businesses and so on, not just meeting certain arbitrary goals. Through our programs we have had many of our young people who started from pretty severe places get to this level. And it’s not just Horse Boy – many movement-based, kinetic programs have seen similar successes.
You got to move, people.
Which brings us to the ‘what can I do right now, right here” part of the blog. Follow your child – physically follow them outside into the back yard, into parks and get on the lay equipment with them – don’t sit there watching but show them how to use their bodies on the various playscapes and you’ll start actively building the brain. Inside the living room – make obstacle courses out of furniture and have the family chase each other around for an hour. Put on music and dance, dance, dance. Get stupid! For extra points do it on a trampoline. On a hot day get someone to spray you down with water as you bounce, slipping and laughing and getting up again to music.
The BDNF, and all those other good effects, will kick in.
And you, dear reader, will get the BDNF too. You will get smarter. You will get fitter. You will get happier. And happiness, as we know, is true quality of life, and leads to curiosity in learning, and long terms learning.
So let’s get away from this frikkin computer screen. If it’s raining out, put on the waterproofs and go slide in the mud. If it’s how – try the trampoline and hose pipe trick. If you’ve got to be in the house, set up that obstacle course. Do it hard for an hour, so you’re panting, red faced and laughing. Make this a culture, a regular thing, a daily thing, a three times daily thing with your kids. And watch them thrive – mentally not just physically.
BDNF – God gives us this for free. Let’s give thanks and use it!