Priming Your Brain – A Guide To Learning

January 31, 2013 in Learning About Learning

A short while ago, I realized that I am fortunate enough to work in a profession where intelligent, successful people surround me.  These people, the athletes and members of my gym, come from a wide assortment of economical, social, and educational backgrounds.  Professions in my gym range from doctors, lawyers, life coaches, real estate agents, and Marine Corps Officers.  While these members are diverse in many aspects of life, they share a communal respect for health and fitness. As a gym owner, I am naturally going to be surrounded by people who understand the value of fitness.  What I’ve found, though, is that even with such diversity, there is a common thread of overall intelligence and success.

One might argue that successful people will find ways to spend their money, and joining a gym is one way to do it.  Others might argue that these people are successful because they understand that mental health is directly related to physical health.  Regardless of what brought these people into our gym, their prior successes and intelligence, we see a positive trend in the perception of mental capacity.   We have members reporting feeling better during work and school.

What the members are describing is an increased cognitive function that directly correlates to physical exercise.  I would like to explore further how fitness can affect cognitive processes.

The Brain Connections

Every function of the body relies on an intricate communication network that starts in the brain.  Every piece of information you receive through your senses is relayed to your brain for analyzing, processing, and synthesizing.  Inside the depths of human brain, we have a network of cells that communicate electronically.  This communication system is how one part of our brain communicates with another and how information is transmitted to the body.  The cells that communicate with each other are called neurons.

A neuron is a cell designed to transmit information from one cell to another.  A neural network looks like the roots of a tree, however, a closer examination reveals that each neuron is separate from the others.  A neuron will send messages through an axon, or a long stem that extends from the cell body.  The message will travel through space called a synapse, and reach another neuron.  A neuron has a receptive area called a dendrite.  The information that is passed from neuron to neuron is called a neural transmitter.

When you learn something new you have to create a new connection between two neurons.  Early on, this connection is weak and fragile, and can be broken, causing you to forget whatever you just learned, but the more times you perform an action, the more you strengthen that connection, and the easier it becomes.  What is surprising though, is that mixing exercise in with your learning can dramatically improve the strength of this connection and how likely you are to recall that new piece of information later on.

Exercise – The Science Behind The Application

It has been shown that rats can increase the number of synapses (the connections between neurons in their brain) after completing acrobatic training.  When I say acrobatic training, I am talking about more than the hamster wheel of pain.  I’m talking about a complex assortment of obstacles requiring the rats to create ways to overcome obstacles.    This means that as we age we can improve the number of connections between cells by learning new movements.

Find an exercise program that teaches you new and complex movement. Develop skills in Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, or acrobatics.  Learn and develop new skills, such as rock climbing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or boxing.  The more coordinated activity involved, the more you will benefit from the affects of motor learning and the brain.

It has also been shown that physical activity in rats increased the density of blood vessels in the brain.   This means there were a greater number of nutrients supplied from the blood to the brain.  This is an unexpected, yet beneficial side effect of acrobatic feats – increased blood flow to the brain – that helps learning (developing those neural connections) that isn’t possible when trying to learn when you’ve been sitting at a desk for long periods of time.

Research also shows that exercise can help induce neurogenesis, or the formation of new nerve cells, in the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is the area brain where memories are stored.  This cell creation is due to the production of substances released during exercise called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF assists in the growth of new neurons and preventing older connections from dying off.      Our brains are plastic, which means they have the ability to change depending on use.  This neuroplasticity of our brains is referred to as “use it or lose it”.   The brain will prune away unused or weak connections.  As we age, skills we do not practice as often can be lost.

Controlling How You Learn

If you are new to training, to reap the benefits of aerobic activity, start by walking daily.  As you feel comfortable, increase the distances and the intensity.  The goal is to get your heart rate up and keep moving at least three to four times a week for 20-30 minutes at a time.  Most law enforcement, security, first responder and military jobs demand long periods of inactivity followed by periods of intense engagement.  Train this way.  Your workouts should be brief, yet intense.  If you want to engage the aerobic metabolic pathway, try interval work.  That means short periods of intense work followed by rest.  Repeat several times.

However, to truly maximize your physical and mental potential, you may want to find the minimal effective dose for exercise.  That means to find a program that will give you the aerobic benefits and motor learning benefits at the same time.  Incorporate a strength-training program for the increased benefits of metabolic and muscle development.  Incorporate functional movements that require coordination, learning, and mastery.

In Conclusion

It is clear that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise and the learning of new motor-developing tasks can increase your cognitive functions.  I don’t know if this explains why there is such a large population of successful, driven and intelligent people that frequent my facility, but it helps.

In our gym we do all of the steps I talked about above.  We are a CrossFit affiliate in Carlsbad, CA.  The athletes in our gym work on a strength-based lift, then focus on a technique-based movement and hit a short-duration high intensity workout, which is usually followed by a cool-down or a static strength building gymnastic movement.  Our goal is simple, and physical in general, to build a well-rounded athlete.  Building the smarter athlete is a beneficial side effect.

Article References:

Acheson A, Conover JC, et. al. (March 1995). A BDNF autocrine loop in adult sensory neurons prevents cell death. Nature 374 (6521): 450–3.  Retrieved from

American Physiological Society (2011, April 12). Moderate exercise dramatically improves brain blood flow in elderly women. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from­ /releases/2011/04/110412131921.htm

Black, J, Isaacs, K, et. al., (1990, July) Learning causes synaptogenesis, whereas motor activity causes angiogenesis in cerebellar cortex of adult rats.  Proc. Nati. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 87, pp. 5568-5572, July 1990 Neurobiology.  Retrieved from

Hubel, D. H., & Wiesel, T. N. (1965). Binocular interaction in striate cortex of kittens reared with artificial squint. Journal of Neurophysiology, 28, 1041–1059.

Raichlen, D and Polk, J (2012, Nov 21) Linking brains and brawn: exercise and the evolution of human neurobiology. Proc R Soc B. Retrieved from

This article has become part of an e-book that can be downloaded here

Your Brain and Exercise

March 14, 2012 in Learning About Learning

In this video, Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert discusses his belief about how the brain has evolved.  He says, “We have a brain for one reason, and one reason only and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements.”  This may give us an insight into the connection of how our limbic brain controls our involuntary actions, which gives us the ability to create a “Combat Profile.”  If this is the case, can we increase our brain’s ability through the use of complex motor functions?  Research shows the answer is a resounding, YES. Continue reading »

Natural Lines of Drift and the Least Effort Principle

February 27, 2012 in Assessing The Environment

Recently, a question was brought up regarding our (The CP Journal’s) use of “Natural Lines of Drift”. To be clear, when we discuss the domain, “Geographics”, identifying a natural line of drift is a key principle.  Understanding this principle can help us determine which route the enemy has used, the suspected route the enemy has used, or a predicted route the enemy will use. This is beneficial in finding our enemy, or anticipating methods and areas of attack.

I presented the picture (left) to another instructor, and said we would like our students to consider roads and trails to understand the terrain and how it is used. My fellow instructor responded, “If your topic ‘Natural Lines of Drift’, which is defined as a route one would most likely take and is usually associated with a path of least resistance, then the picture to the left is not a “Natural Line of Drift’, is it?”

He was right.

Continue reading »

What would Ender do? Effective Communication

December 10, 2011 in Applying The Observations

“Do you have any explanation for your behavior, young man?” asked the officer.
Ender shook his head again. He didn’t know what to say, and he was afraid to reveal him out to be. I’ll take it, whatever the punishment is, he thought. Let’s get it over with.

    “We’re willing to consider extenuating circumstances,” the officer said. “But I must tell you it doesn’t look good. Kicking him in the groin, kicking him repeatedly in the face and body when he was down- it sounds like you really enjoyed it.”

    “I didn’t,” Ender whispered.

    “Then why did you do it?”

    “He had his gang there,” Ender said.

Continue reading »


November 30, 2011 in Assessing The Environment

I hate to admit it, but that jerk you saw swerving on the Southbound 5 Freeway last week, playing on his cell phone, well, that may have been me.  I would say I’m sorry, but I know you were probably the guy next to me doing the same thing.  We can’t help it.  Technology has made it easy for us to retrieve information, immediately.

Now, before you get all high and mighty, let me just say that I had good reason to endanger every motorist within a 2 lane radius of my car.  On this particular day as I was driving home, I found myself stuck behind a Prius, driving 65MPH, in the fast lane.  If you are not from Southern California, the average speed on the 5 Freeway is at least 80MPH.  This, in my humble opinion, is the worst type of human being.  So, after several vehicular gestures of decreasing the distance between his car and mine, I couldn’t help but notice a bumper sticker on the back of his car.  The sticker read, “CODE PINK”.  The name “CODE PINK” sounded familiar, but I didn’t know what it had meant.  My initial thoughts were that maybe it was a band, or a breast cancer awareness group.  Alas, my curiosity got the best of me; I whipped out my phone and preceded to “google” the phrase.  I had learned that Code Pink is a “… a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S. funded wars and occupations, to challenge militarism globally, and to redirect our resources into health care, education, green jobs and other life-affirming activities.”  Whoa, that was unexpected.  So given this information I can probably assume this individual is probably an anti-war protester; that explains the Prius.

This person was telling me and the world a little bit about where he stands politically, whether we like it or not.

The use of body art, graffiti, art, symbols, clothing, jewelry, grooming, bumper stickers, flags, colors, or any other personal items to reveal information is what we call iconography. Iconography is a domain of combat profiling which we use to assist our ability to make proactive decisions.

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Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina – Book Review

October 23, 2011 in Books and Resources

As we discuss the concepts of what it takes to understand behavioral analysis, oftentimes we have to discuss what happens in our brain as our sensory systems receive information. We also spend a good amount of time describing the most important of the senses to a trained observer which is sight. To aid in our understanding of these complex systems, we spend a good amount of time researching books and articles, which describes these processes. One standout book, which has become a valuable resource for us, is Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina.
Continue reading »

Don’t get punched in the face

October 5, 2011 in Applying The Observations

If you are trying to find the quickest way to get punched in the face, try staring people down in a busy marketplace.  That is exactly what will happen if you start employing overt observation techniques from a non-concealed observation post.  Sometimes, employing these techniques can get exciting, and you will get so focused, you can become “blind” to counter surveillance.  This is called “Change Blindness”.  We will discuss this concept in another post.  So how do you avoid the badge of shame associated when a Wal-Mart loss prevention specialist appears “out of nowhere” and asks you to leave?  Or worse… when a gang banger decides your face should meet his fist.
Continue reading »

Establishing a baseline, a different approach

September 15, 2011 in Applying The Observations

Earlier, PVH discussed what a baseline was, and how to establish one. His suggestion was to observe and establish patterns. Jason Riley later defined how we use the domains to establish patterns.

This article builds off of both articles, but I will discuss a different technique to establish a baseline.

In order for this method to be effective, the observer must have a good understanding of each domain. This will allow the observer to constantly analyze the information he is receiving. To prevent “information overload” we must be methodical in our approach. Here’s how.

As you enter your area of observation, quickly perform a scan for any immediate threats. In this case, anything that can cause harm to you, anyone else, or your mission. Look for weapons, aggressive posturing, or anyone observing you. Start close and finish far. This is important, because the closer a threat is, the less reaction time you are given. As a result, threats that are closer to you are usually a higher priority.

Now you are prepared to start establishing a baseline.

First, take your environment, and strip away all human factors. Look at every single object, as a fact. A park bench, a tree, a sidewalk, a light post, etc. Once you have an understanding of the geographical layout of your environment, you can start making assumptions. Assumptions are the expected human behaviors, or environmental factors. For example: Continue reading »