Neurogenic Development

Neurogenic Development

Starting from a stem cell and maturing over three weeks into a fully functional neuron that begins to link with other neurons, neurogenesis offsets neuropathic losses caused by age, illness, or injury. The process continues throughout life, but ebbs and flows, depending on several factors.

Neurogenesis requires just-right challenges both to cognitive capacity and to aerobic capacity, within the context of good control of stress. Neurogenesis is occurring constantly, even now as you read this. The ebb and flow of neurogenesis changes throughout the day and continues as you sleep.

Because of the positive effect of aerobic activity on both stress and neurogenesis, I encourage my clients and students to integrate high-demand learning activities with aerobic activities. My wife Mary and I do that ourselves. For example, I often listen to podcast lectures on interesting but challenging subjects while I ride my bicycle on the Katy Trail. Mary reads while on the treadmill. When studying for important examinations, I encourage my students to audio record study guides and listen to them while walking. Rather than sitting and studying, walking and reading or listening is certainly more effective.

An excellent popular press treatment of this topic and its importance in education is Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman. The authors describe an educational program in Illinois that integrates physical education with demanding academic education. High school students are encouraged to participate in aerobic activities in zero-period and take difficult courses like calculus or physics or chemistry in the first half of the morning. The results are impressive, presented by the authors with adequate research references.

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  1. Sherry May 24, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    I found this post to be very interesting, and it raised some questions for me.

    Because I find stationary cycling to be mind-numbing and soulless activity, I read on the rare occasions I use our exercise bike at home (sometimes manuals or field guides and sometimes crime novels — and I know which of these present any kind of challenge!).

    But walking and hiking (and cycling outdoors, when I used to do it) feel very different to me. I’m very visually, aurally, and cognitively engaged with my environment when I’m doing them, noting landmarks and mentally cataloging the various fauna (and their behavior) and flora I come across and stopping to check out individuals I don’t recognize. Even when I’m seeing pretty much what I expect to see, I’m usually either in the moment or wondering what’s around the next curve in the path. Does that kind of focus during walking present a just-right challenge? Also, given my interests, it would be counter-productive to listen to an audio study guide while I was out walking — but would writing up field notes and studying after returning from my walk or hike have results similar to those for the students who took challenging courses after aerobic exercise during zero hour?

  2. Len Matheson June 18, 2011 at 7:53 PM


    Your description of how you engage with the environment on your hikes is wonderful. Because you bring an enquiring mind along on your hikes, the experience becomes a just-right challenge. It is meaningful to you, and challenging in the moment and on an ongoing basis. Remember that the just-right challenge is found at the interface between your immediate capacity and the demands of your occupational and environmental contexts. To confirm that this was a JRC, the question I would ask is, “What did you learn?” If you answer, “Many new things…” you are experiencing the effects of a just-right challenge.

    This also is an excellent activity for neurogenesis because it includes the physical demand component and the stress-reduction component. Your hippocampus loves you!

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

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