When patients and I get to know each other, I often conduct my visits while walking with the patient in New York City’s Central Park. The movement and constantly changing scenery helps the patient remember my advice, and helps me remember the encounter!
Norepinephrine can sometimes work against us. Unlike in our distant past, stressful stimuli today don’t always require our immediate focus and attention. And yet, the physiological mechanisms remain to guide our attention when a threat is perceived, real or otherwise. The media often exploits this fact—something I know well, having worked in TV. “If it bleeds, it leads” is typically the mandate in television news, where the most stress-inducing stories are teased at the top of the hour.
This approach activates networks in our brains that ensure that attention is paid to such news as if our survival depends on it. Clearly, this is often not the case. In fact, avoiding daily news is one strategy to enhance your focus and cognition that will pay dividends, as chronic norepinephrine release can harm your cognitive function just as much as acute release can boost it. How can we mine norepinephrine for greater productivity?
Exercise is one of the most effective ways of boosting norepinephrine, and the “side effect” of that may mean enhanced learning and memory. This was demonstrated recently when college-age adults who exercised on a stationary bike while learning a new language were able to retain and understand what they learned better than controls who were sedentary during lessons. 29 For the millions diagnosed with ADHD, this strategy can serve as a natural cognitive enhancer, as norepinephrine (and dopamine) reuptake inhibitors are frequently prescribed to treat ADHD.