Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


4 Essential (and Overlooked) Facts About Your Brain and Your Mind

NeuronsAn aspir­ing clar­inetist begins by get­ting a sense of the way the instrument’s sounds are pro­duced by the air she blows through it. A dri­ver must be acquainted with var­i­ous vehi­cle fun­da­men­tals, such as adding gas, accel­er­at­ing, and read­ing the speedome­ter. It is no dif­fer­ent with the brain. Max­i­miz­ing your brain’s health and per­for­mance begins with a basic under­stand­ing of how it works and how it evolves across the lifespan.

The human brain evolved to help us oper­ate in com­plex, chang­ing envi­ron­ments by con­tin­u­ally learn­ing and adapt­ing. Suc­cess­fully doing so involves a vari­ety of brain func­tions and abil­i­ties, includ­ing var­i­ous types of mem­ory, lan­guage, emo­tional reg­u­la­tion, atten­tion, and plan­ning. While these func­tions are often car­ried out by dis­tinct neural net­works, they are fun­da­men­tally inter­de­pen­dent and thriv­ing in the envi­ron­ment we face each day depends on the func­tion­al­ity of all these brain func­tions, whether cog­ni­tive, emo­tional, or executive.

For exam­ple, imag­ine that you are dis­cussing an ambi­tious new project with a client. The sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult, both because the impor­tance of the deal for your career means you are anx­ious to close it to your advan­tage, and because the client is being quite con­de­scend­ing. The pres­sure to suc­ceed and the need to refrain from get­ting angry make it hard for you to “stay cool” and think straight. This turns out to be a good illus­tra­tion of the ways that we depend on “emo­tional self-regulation”, and demon­strates the fact that emo­tional and cog­ni­tive func­tions are tightly interconnected.

Brain func­tions are not fixed at birth or after child­hood, as our brains con­stantly change over a life­time: over the short term in response to our daily thoughts, sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and actions, as well as over the long term, as we con­tinue grow­ing wiser – and older. The good news is that we are not rel­e­gated to pas­sively watch­ing these changes occur. Our brains respond to basic lifestyle fac­tors that we have a large degree of con­trol over, and neu­ro­plas­tic­ity (the brain’s life­long capac­ity to change and rewire itself in response to stim­u­la­tion and expe­ri­ence) is at the core of the abil­ity to actively improve spe­cific func­tions through train­ing. Genet­ics is not destiny.

In par­tic­u­lar, it is impor­tant to keep in mind a few fun­da­men­tal, and often over­looked, facts:

  1. “Smart pills” sim­ply don’t exist. It would be nice, of course, if we could all just take a pill to quickly and pain­lessly increase brain health and per­for­mance. But, pub­lished evi­dence ques­tions the effec­tive­ness and safety of both sup­ple­ments and drugs for cog­ni­tive enhance­ment. Now, while evi­dence that “smart” drugs actu­ally work is scarce at the present, we do have a wide-ranging body of research to sup­port the idea that a few fun­da­men­tal behav­iors have a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on our brain health and fit­ness, and these include phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise and a healthy diet. So why don’t we start there?
  2. Aging can bring decline… Start­ing in our late 20’s and early 30’s, research shows that speed of pro­cess­ing and work­ing mem­ory (the type of mem­ory that allows us to both hold infor­ma­tion in mind and work on it as needed) tend, on aver­age, to slow down, reduc­ing our capac­ity to process and deal with com­plex new infor­ma­tion. This is a grad­ual process that often first becomes notice­able in our early 40’s. How­ever, indi­vid­u­als vary sig­nif­i­cantly in how and when they expe­ri­ence these decreases: some peo­ple expe­ri­ence a sig­nif­i­cant decline while oth­ers do not.
  3. … and also improve­ment. On the other hand, even after the brain is fully formed in young adult­hood, researchers have found that func­tions that ben­e­fit from accu­mu­lated prac­tice, such as vocabulary-related lan­guage skills, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, and emo­tional self-regulation, tend to improve decade after decade. In one study for exam­ple, researchers asked indi­vid­u­als from three age groups to read sto­ries about inter­group and inter­per­sonal con­flicts and pre­dict how these con­flicts would unfold. Com­pared to young and middle-aged peo­ple, older peo­ple employed higher rea­son­ing schemes that involved mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, allowed for com­pro­mise, and rec­og­nized the lim­its of knowl­edge. So, the point is, we need both to nur­ture our strengths and to address our weak­nesses, if we are to main­tain peak per­for­mance along extended life and career spans.
  4. “Cells that fire together wire together.” By prac­tic­ing a skill over and over we stim­u­late the same neural net­works in the brain, result­ing in the strength­en­ing of exist­ing con­nec­tions and the cre­ation of new ones. Over time, the brain can become more effi­cient, requir­ing less effort to do the same job, which is why brain train­ing can work if prop­erly imple­mented. This is also true with edu­ca­tion and life­long learn­ing. By increas­ing the con­nec­tions between neu­rons and increas­ing the so-called brain reserve (also known as cog­ni­tive reserve), learn­ing helps strengthen the brain against age-related decline and pro­tects us against poten­tial demen­tia pathol­ogy. Edu­ca­tion is a life­long endeavor, rather than one that largely con­cludes when we fin­ish school.

In short, our brains and minds are far from set in stone due to genet­ics or age. Grow­ing evi­dence sug­gests beyond a rea­son­able doubt that what we do at every sin­gle day has an impact on brain fit­ness that very same day and also later in life. Edu­ca­tion, lifestyle, brain train­ing and deci­sions under our con­trol mat­ter as much as our genetic inher­i­tance in the tra­jec­tory of our men­tal capac­ity over time, a real­iza­tion that can be some­what daunt­ing but also immensely empow­er­ing. By read­ing this arti­cle, you have just now phys­i­cally changed your brain’s neural con­nec­tions and taken a step towards a health­ier and fit­ter brain. What will your next step be?

SharpBrainsGuide_3D_compressed–This is an adapted excerpt from the book “The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages). This user-friendly, how-to guide cuts through the clut­ter of media hype about the lat­est “magic pill” for bet­ter brain health, offer­ing proven, prac­ti­cal tips and tech­niques to enhance brain func­tion through­out life and help ward off cog­ni­tive decline. Please con­sider read­ing the book and join­ing the book dis­cus­sion in Jan­u­ary 2014!


Be Socia­ble, Share!
    Print This Article Print This Article

    Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

    New online course: How to Nav­i­gate Con­ven­tional and Com­ple­men­tary ADHD Treat­ments for Healthy Brain Development (early bird rates end tomorrow)

    Haven’t read this book yet?

    Follow us via


    Welcome to

    As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, CNN and more, Sharp­Brains is an inde­pen­dent mar­ket research firm track­ing health and well­ness appli­ca­tions of brain science.
    FIRST-TIME VISITOR? Dis­cover HERE the most pop­u­lar resources at

    Sponsored ad

    Enter Your Email to receive Sharp­Brains free, monthly eNewslet­ter:
    Join more than 50,000 Sub­scribers and stay informed and engaged.