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Get to Know Our Neuroscientist, Dr. Alex Korb

Meet Dr. Alex Korb, the resident neuroscientist at ParentLab. Of course, he has all the expertise you’d expect, including a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA and over 15 years studying the brain, but he’s also head coach of the UCLA Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team and previously wrote a blog for Psychology Today called “PreFrontal Nudity: Your Brain Exposed.” When he’s not explaining how kids’ brains develop, he’s a professor at UCLA teaching students about neuroscience and well being. He also works as a speaker and scientific consultant.

A testament to the fact that mothers never stop mothering no matter how old their children get, Dr. Korb’s involvement with ParentLab is all thanks to his mom. After reading The Reflective Parent, co-founder Jill Li reached out to the author, psychiatrist Dr. Regina Pally. While talking about neuroscience, she referred Jill to The Upward Spiral a book about what happens in your brain during depression and what you can do about it written by her son, Dr. Korb.

To help you get to know the guy behind all the neuroscience you’ll find in our kits, Dr. Korb graciously let us pick his brain. Here, he shares insights on how to help shape your child’s brain, the best thing you can do to keep your brain healthy, and why his own brain once staged a revolt against ice cream.

1. What’s one thing about their children’s brains that parents should understand?

The most important element in shaping your child’s brain is not something specific that you do but how you relate to them.

2. In a nutshell, how does a child’s brain develop?

The circuits that control stress as well as the ones that control relationships develop very early. That’s why managing your own emotions and your response to stress, as well as how you relate to your child, are so powerful in shaping your child’s brain. Problem-solving and abstract reasoning circuits develop later, but those are helped along by the foundations you’ve created in resilience to stress and strong relationships.

3. Are there any “brain foods” that are especially good for brain development?

There’s no secret brain food. A well-balanced diet is best, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The brain also needs fat to develop. That doesn’t mean everything should be fried, but fat is essential. Milk, fish, and olive oil are great sources of fat. Processed foods and sugar should be minimized.

4. What’s the most important thing we can do for our brains?

One common element across adult and child brain health is quality sleep. You can’t always control how much sleep you get, but you can improve the quality of that sleep by paying attention to something called sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • getting enough exercise and sunlight during the day

  • having a calming routine to get ready for bed

  • keeping a regular schedule

  • making sure your sleep environment is dark and relaxing

Improving sleep hygiene can reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance clear thinking.

5. Will you share an anecdote about yourself and your brain?

Once a friend and I went to dinner and had ice cream at Rite-Aid afterward. The next day, we both ended up with food poisoning. It was almost certainly from the food we had at dinner, but I learned a lesson about how the brain prefers to be safe rather than sorry.

A few days later, I was driving past that same Rite-Aid and the thought of ice cream popped into my head – followed immediately by an intense revulsion. I thought, “This is ridiculous. That’s just psychological.” I wasn’t about to stop liking ice cream.

I went inside and ordered a scoop. As I started eating, I felt more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. My stomach was churning, and I began sweating, which I recognized as activations of the limbic system and the stress response. I tried to tell myself that my brain was overreacting, but those deep regions of the brain don’t listen to reason. Different parts of the brain follow different logic, so no matter how much I told myself that there was nothing wrong with the ice cream, I couldn’t get myself to finish it. I ended up throwing away almost the whole thing.

While our thinking rational brain circuits are important, so are our emotional brain circuits, and you can’t follow one at the expense of the other. Fortunately, the adage “time heals all wounds” applied in this case. And after a few weeks, the thought of eating ice cream no longer disgusted me, and I was able to enjoy it again.

This event taught me that emotions are real. It’s helpful to acknowledge and understand them, but that doesn’t mean that you can always do something about them – although getting upset with yourself about how you feel usually just makes things worse.

6. What brain discovery are you most hoping will happen soon?

I’m hoping researchers will start to develop a better understanding of individual people’s emotional circuitry and create plans for personalized treatment. For example, we know that exercise can be helpful for depression and anxiety, as can mindfulness practices – but we don’t know ahead of time who will most benefit from which.

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