They keep us alive, they store our memories, and a lot of us have them. What are we talking about? Brains, of course!
Brains are pretty essential in learning and development (L&D). But the limbic system is particularly important. After all, it gives us our passion to learn. Without it, we would not be motivated to complete training and develop our skills.
As such, today, we are going to talk about the limbic system of the brain! We will walk you through five ways to ensure your limbic system is in top-notch condition and helps you to get the most out of learning experiences.
But first, let’s explore what the limbic system is, its functions and its different structures!
What Is the Limbic System?
The limbic system, also known as the paleomammalian cortex, is a set of interconnected structures in the brain, more specifically in the midbrain.
In evolutionary terms, the limbic system is one of the oldest parts of the brain, and it can be found in fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It was initially called the rhinencephalon (what a mouthful!), or smell-brain.
The name ‘smell-brain’ was fitting as our limbic system was thought to be primarily responsible for our sense of smell. However, psychologists now recognise that it serves many more functions than that.
While the limbic brain is responsible for our behavioural and emotional responses to stimuli, it also supports higher mental functions. These include, for instance, learning, making memories and formulating habits.
And that’s what makes it so important for effective learning. It facilitates our memory storage and retrieval, establishes emotional states and links conscious, intellectual functions with unconscious, autonomic functions. As a result, it influences our problem-solving, organisation and rational thought.
In addition, while your sensory cortex and motor cortex allow you to perform certain tasks, your limbic system makes you want to complete the tasks you are performing. It can be seen as your very own internal motivational speaker!
Have a peek below at what our very own Juliette Denny has to say on the matter:
Important Parts of the Limbic System
As we know now, the limbic system is a collection of structures that are involved in processing emotion and memory. All of its constituent components work together as a network to regulate some of the brain’s most important processes.
However, there is some debate in the scientific community about which structures are actually part of the limbic system. Most agree that the amygdala and hippocampus are important parts.
As such, we’ll walk you through these two first before discussing other structures often considered to be a part of the limbic system.
The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobes, located right next to the hippocampus. Its main function is in emotional response, including our feelings of happiness, fear, anger and anxiety.
By evaluating the emotional valence of situations, the amygdala helps our brains recognise potential threats. Then it helps our bodies to prepare for fight-or-flight reactions. As a result, it also helps us to learn through conditioning via rewards and punishments..
In addition, the amygdala is important for the formation of new memories. After all, it interacts with the hippocampus and attaches emotional content to memories.
This plays a key role in how memorable these memories will be long-term. In fact, memories that have strong emotional attachments tend to enter our long-term memory easier.
Like many other structures in the brain, the hippocampus comes as a pair. Located in each hemisphere of the brain, both of your hippocampi resemble the shape of a seahorse, and they mainly consist of grey matter.
The hippocampus is essentially the memory centre of our brains. It’s where we form short-term memories and encode them into long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex.
Memories are not stored in the hippocampus, but it makes connections that organise them effectively. Similarly, our hippocampus function helps us associate memories with various senses.
For instance, if you burn your finger on a hot pan for the very first time, your hippocampus learns the sensory input in relation to this new experience. It plays the memory back repeatedly to your cerebral cortex to form a long-term memory.
This process is called memory consolidation. It continues until you have effectively formed a long-term memory. This memory will be held in one of the various areas of the cortex, as different kinds of memories are stored in different areas of the brain.
The memory function makes the hippocampus one of the most essential brain structures for learning new things. After all, it completes a process called neurogenesis, where it makes new neurons from adult stem cells. This process is the basis of one type of neuroplasticity.
Being a key learning structure, we, of course, have an article devoted to these magical structures. You can read all about the hippocampus function here!
Thalamus and Hypothalamus
Both the thalamus and hypothalamus are associated with changes in our emotional reactivity.
The thalamus is a large structure that sits deep in the centre of the brain. It passes information from the outside world to and from your cerebral cortex. As such, its primary importance comes from the connections between the thalamus and other limbic brain systems.
Your hypothalamus, on the other hand, is only about the size of a pearl. Regardless of its small size, it’s one of the busiest areas of the brain! It sits just below the thalamus on both sides of the third ventricle.
The hypothalamus controls the brain chemicals that make you, for instance, hungry, sleepy, exhilarated, angry or unhappy. As such, its most basic function is homeostasis, or maintaining a steady internal state.
To control its many functions effectively, the hypothalamus integrates information from other parts of the brain. As a result, it’s responsive to a variety of stimuli, including light, odour, stress and arousal.
The cingulate gyrus is a large arch-shaped structure that is part of the cingulate cortex of the brain. It is an integral part of the limbic system, and there are many gyri that interact with the limbic system and the brain as a whole.
The precentral gyrus contains our primary motor cortex and controls our skeletal muscles. The postcentral gyrus, in turn, contains our primary somatosensory cortex that is responsible for spatial discrimination.
As such, the cingulate gyrus helps us regulate our emotions, behaviour and pain. Similarly, it enables us to predict and avoid negative stimuli by monitoring the body’s response to unpleasant experiences.
It also plays a key role in expressing our emotions through gestures. Have you ever clenched your hands into fists when you are angry? That, for instance, is regulated through your cingulate gyrus.
The basal ganglia are a group of structures that are situated at the base of the forebrain and top of the midbrain, tucked behind other parts of the limbic system.
The limbic region of the basal ganglia includes multiple components. These are called the nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area and the ventral pallidum.
These areas are involved in our cognitive and emotional behaviours, as well as with our response to rewards and reinforcements. As such, the basal ganglia are linked to habit formation and addictive behaviours.
On top of this, the main function of the basal ganglia is to regulate and organise our voluntary movements, including, for instance, eye movements, balance and posture.
As a result, damage to the basal ganglia can cause movement disorders like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.
The Limbic System Function: 5 Ways To Boost Its Power
Now you know more about how the limbic system functions. What’s next? Understanding the steps you can take to calibrate and refine your limbic system, so that you’re ready to crush any learning experience that lies in wait!
Let’s have a look at five simple steps you can take to ensure your limbic system is operating at peak performance capability.
1. Eat Well and Embrace an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Don’t worry, we’re not about to tell you to only munch on grass and carrots to support a healthy diet. However, there is some truth in the phrase ‘you are what you eat’.
Cognitive dysfunction is typically associated with inflammation. As such, one of the best strategies for supporting your limbic system function is to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet.
Highly inflammatory foods contain refined sugars and grains, food additives and preservatives and pesticides and toxic debris. These foods typically include hydrogenated fats, processed vegetable oils, farmed fish or conventionally raised meat and dairy.
As these foods upregulate inflammation, they create extra acidity in your tissues. This will ultimately weaken or destroy the tissues in your brain. And we don’t want that, do we?
As such, you need to include foods in your diet that reduce inflammation, stabilise blood sugar and provide necessary nutrients that enable your limbic system to operate effectively.
These foods include, for instance, grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, pastured eggs and low-carbohydrate and low-glycaemic vegetables. But, don’t worry, we have not forgotten about treats or your morning caffeine kick!
For instance, Healthline suggests that blueberries contain antioxidants that tackle brain ageing by attacking oxidative stress. Coffee is also great for the brain, as it includes antioxidants and can boost feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
The even better news is that dark chocolate is great for the brain! Dark chocolate contains brain elevators, such as flavonoids and (you guessed it) antioxidants that help to sharpen your memory.
2. Increase Your Vitamin and Supplement Intake
Similarly to consuming a healthy diet, increasing your vitamin and supplement intake will help you to support your brain function. For instance, Omega-3 fatty acids improve learning and memory, which helps you to fight against cognitive disorders.
According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences, these vitamin-rich foods are fantastic brain-boosters:
- Garlic is high in iodine, which supports healthy brain activity.
- Kelp is high in iodine, phosphorus and vitamin C, all of which are wonderful brain nutrients.
- Wild salmon is high in phosphorus, vitamin B3 and Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Nuts, like walnuts, cashews and almonds, are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and are high in phosphorus.
- Foods high in resveratrol, like red grapes, red wine, peanut butter, cranberries and blueberries.
3. Manage Your Stress Levels
As most of us have experienced, stress can wreak havoc on our health. This is especially true when it comes to our brains.
In fact, stress is one of the leading factors in cognitive dysfunction. Severe stress can cause inflammation in the brain, which deteriorates our brain health.
As such, our ability to manage our stress levels is essential for a healthy limbic system. Some people find help in meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and aromatherapy, while others engage the brain through games, reading books, listening to music or doing arts and crafts.
Destressing pleases your almighty amygdala, the limbic structure responsible for your awareness of emotions. As a result, you will not only be more relaxed but also happier.
And did you know that happy learners are 12% more productive? What’s not to love?
We’re sure you’re already aware of the mammoth benefits that exercising has on your physical health. But, did you know that it also dramatically boosts your brainpower? As such, physical exercise is one of the best ways to maintain optimal limbic system function!
Exercising produces certain feel-good neurotransmitters, such as endorphins. In addition, it increases blood flow and supplies oxygen to the brain. Physical activity can even stimulate new brain cell growth, also known as hippocampal neurogenesis!
Train Fitness recommends a fitness regime of 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times a week to help maintain the health of your limbic system. Further research suggests that aerobic exercises such as cardio, swimming, running, walking, and hiking are particularly beneficial to charging up your brainpower.
In addition, exercise helps to control stress, balance hormones, raise immune function and lower inflammation. As explored earlier, these are all essential for boosting the power of your limbic system.
5. Prioritise Sleep
Last, but not least, let’s talk about sleep! Restorative sleep is essential for optimal brain function. This kind of sleep happens when brain activity during your sleep helps to restore your body and mind.
Sleep reduces inflammation and restores the brain by flushing out toxins, like a protein called beta-amyloid. In addition, sleep plays a critical role in storing memories effectively.
In turn, a lack of sleep can impact your cognitive function significantly. For instance, you may find it difficult to solve problems, exercise reason or pay attention to detail. Similarly, sleep deficiencies can cause an imbalance in your blood sugar and increase inflammation and cortisol secretion.
So, what can you do to improve your sleep in order to allow your limbic system to operate at its best? Here are some of our top tips for a great night’s sleep:
- Lower the temperature in your bedroom
- Keep your room as dark as possible
- Avoid caffeine and heavy foods before bedtime
- Get sun exposure during the day
- Exercise regularly, but not late at night
- Keep a sleep diary to find your optimal sleeping routine
- Then stick to a regular bedtime and rising time
- Avoid napping during the day unless absolutely necessary
- If you nap, don’t sleep more than 15 to 20 minutes
- Avoid bright light after sunset
The limbic system is the most crucial part of the brain to keep healthy if you want to promote high-quality learning. Luckily, there are a variety of simple routes your learners can take to achieve this!
For instance, practising relaxation and mindfulness, getting those steps in and even munching on dark chocolate can support the health of your limbic system. Ultimately, these little efforts can lead to higher productivity and better learning outcomes!
Want to know about the science behind successful learning? Our guide helps you to turn your learners into learning maestros!