Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Jogging our Brains for Brain Vitality, Healthy Aging-and Intelligence!

Stroop Test

Quick: say the color in which each word in this graphic is displayed (don’t just read the word!):

Here you have a round-up of some great recent articles on memory, aging, and cognitive abilities such as self-control:

1) How to Boost Your Willpower (New York Times).

– “The video watchers were later given a concentration test in which they were asked to identify the color in which words were displayed. (Note: now you see why we started with that brain exercise…) The word  for instance, might appear in blue ink. The video watchers who had stifled their responses did the worst on the test, suggesting that their self-control had already been depleted by the film challenge.”

– “Finally, some research suggests that people struggling with self-control should start small. A few studies show that people who were instructed for two weeks to make small changes like improving their posture or brushing their teeth with their opposite hand improved their scores on laboratory tests of self-control. The data aren’t conclusive, but they do suggest that the quest for self-improvement should start small. A vow to stop swearing, to make the bed every day or to give up just one food may be a way to strengthen your self-control, giving you more willpower reserves for bigger challenges later.”

Comment: learning, building abilities, are processes that require practice and growing levels of difficulty. Like training our muscles in the gym. So the advice to start small and progressively do more makes sense. Many times the enemy of learning is the stress and anxiety we provoke by trying to do too many things at the same time…

2) Jogging Your Memory (Newsweek) Thanks Chris for alerting us!

– “No one should expect miracles soon, if at all. But the deeper scientists peer into the workings of memory, the better they understand what helps to stave off age-related declines and the closer they come to devising potential drugs to help.”

– “That’s why many scientists are more interested in what we can accomplish naturally, without drugs. “With a reasonable amount of effort, you can improve your memory 30 to 40 percent,” says Dr. Barry Gordon, founder of the memory clinic at Johns Hopkins. In the past year, research has shed new light in particular on the benefits of both mental and physical activity.”

– “That’s why a presentation last month at the Gerontological Society of America seemed so intriguing. In a study of 524 healthy adults ages 65 and over, those who worked an hour a day for eight weeks on a computer-based learning program called Brain Fitness 2.0 from Posit Science showed improvements in a variety of unrelated memory tasks. “The gains were equivalent to turning back the clock 10 years,” says lead investigator Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California.”

Comment: we reported on the GSA study, have already interviewed lead investigator Elizabeth Zelinski, and will be publishing it over the next few days so stay tuned. Good news is the well-targeted cognitive exercise can help build abilities, offering a complement to other good lifestyle habits such as physical exercise.

3) Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile (New York Times). Thanks Tom for the heads up!

– “Cognitive reserve, in this theory, refers to the brain’s ability to develop and maintain extra neurons and connections between them via axons and dendrites. Later in life, these connections may help compensate for the rise in dementia-related brain pathology that accompanies normal aging.”

– “Observing this, Dr. Stern, a neuropsychologist, and others set out to determine how people can develop cognitive reserve. They have learned thus far that there is no “quick fix”  for the aging brain, and little evidence that any one supplement or program or piece of equipment can protect or enhance brain function  advertisements for products like ginkgo biloba to the contrary.”

– “Nonetheless, well-designed studies suggest several ways to improve the brain’s viability. Though best to start early to build up cognitive reserve, there is evidence that this account can be replenished even late in life.”

– “If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, without introducing new mental challenges, it won’t be beneficial, she said in an interview. Thus, as with muscles, it’s “use it or lose it.” The brain requires continued stresses to maintain or enhance its strength.”

Comment: you can read our in-depth interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern here on how to build our cognitive reserves. And this article that summarizes much of the recent research on Ten Important Truths About Aging.

4) I.Q. wars (The New Yorker), a superb article by Malcolm Gladwell

– “…if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?”

– “The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized, Flynn said. “It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark. The lesson to be drawn from black and white differences was the same as the lesson from the Netherlands years ago: I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.”

– “If I.Q. is innate, it shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a mixed-race child’s mother or father who is black. But it does: children with a white mother and a black father have an eight-point I.Q. advantage over those with a black mother and a white father.”

Comment: As we wrote here, genes predispose us, but it is the combination of our environments and our actions that we better focus on. This last article sets the stage very well for why intelligence is not a purely genetic attribute, and the previous three articles offer very useful suggestions for becoming “smarter” and maintain our mental abilities over time.

What would you add?

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9 Responses

  1. rest and activity of the brain makes it more agile and improve memory power through meditation.

  2. the brain corresponds with exercising the body? I think that is what the article is implying – because what other purpose would brushing your teeth with your left hand serve? I think it’s a very interesting theory and I wouldn’t at all be surprised. While I try to do things like watch my posture, I’m not sure how much it controls my sense of self-discipline. Thanks for the post.

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hello Ang, meditation indeed provides very good mental training. There was a good recent article in the LA Times
    http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-painmeditation29oct29,1,7691038.story

    To the other commenter: what is self-discipline? the ability to self-monitor our behavior and conciously decide what we want to do despite internal urges to do otherwise. For example, could you resist the temptation to eat a hamburger/ drink a beer…if it is in your hands while you are watching a cool ad for that hamburger/ beer? Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand is an example of an activity that exercises self-discipline while you are doing it, and the more you do other exercises like that in real life the more that ability gets internalized and wired.

    Can you try that exercise for a couple of weeks and let us know what you find 🙂

  4. C.G. Walters says:

    An excellent bit of work, Alvaro. Thank you.
    Peace and wonder,
    CG

  5. Ken says:

    Do you have podcasts on the net?

  6. Alvaro says:

    Thanks, C. G.

    Ken, we don’t have a podcast now, but are indeed evaluating options. It is not clear to us how much of a priority this is, vs. other projects such as video. Happy to hear suggestions and feedback!

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