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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Memory Improvement Techniques and Brain Exercises

Fitness TrainerA reader (thanks Mike!) sends us this fun article, titled A matter of training, on how to train our memory. Some quotes:

“It’s a skill, not a talent. It’s something anyone could have picked up … I’m not born with this. It’s about training and technique, he says, explaining his unusual ability. Anant holds the Limca Record  the Indian equivalent of the Guinness Record œ for memorising 75 telephone numbers, along with the names of their owners, in less than an hour. He is recognised as “the man with the most phenomenal memory in India.

“Unfortunately, most people think that memorising is very difficult. The moment they see someone demonstrate something like this, they think it’s out of this world.

If you want to remember something, you have to link it to something you already know. Association is the natural principal. For example, if you need directions to a place, a landmark is often used as a point of reference. And if you derive pleasure from something you do, there’s a good chance you’ll remember it. Since the brain already works in this manner, why don’t we take control of it?

“To me, an intelligent person is someone who is able to put together more of his skills to solve a problem. Intelligence is about using strategies.

The key concept here is that memory, as well as other cognitive skills, can be trained through Read the rest of this entry »

Information Overload? Seven Learning and Productivity Tips

We often talk in this blog about how to expand fundamental abilities or cognitive functions, like attention, or memory, or emotional self-regulation. Think of them as muscles one can train. Now, it is also important to think of ways one can use our existing muscles more efficiently.

Let’s talk about how to manage better the overwhelming amount of information available these days.

Hundreds of thousands of new books, analyst reports, scientific papers published every year. Millions of websites at our googletips. The flow of data, information and knowledge is growing exponentially, stretching the capacity of our not-so-evolved brains. We can complain all day that we cannot process ALL this flow. Now, let me ask, should we even try?

Probably not. Why engage in a losing proposition. Instead, let me offer a few strategies that can help manage this flow of information better.

1. Prioritize: strategic consulting firms such as McKinsey and BCG train their staff in the so-called 80/20 rule: 80% of effects are caused by the top 20% of causes. In a company, 80% sales may come from 20% of the accounts. Implication: focus on that top 20%; don’t spend too much time on the 80% that only account for 20%.

2. Leverage a scientific mindset. Scientists shift through tons of data in efficient, goal-oriented ways. How do they do it? By first stating a hypothesis and then looking for data. For example, an untrained person could spend weeks “boiling the ocean”, trying to read as much as possible, in a very fragmentary way, about how physical exercise affects our brain. A trained scientist would first define clear hypotheses and preliminary assumptions, such as “Physical exercise can enhance the brain’s ability to generate new neurons” or “Those new neurons appear in the hippocampus”, and then look specifically for data that corroborates or refutes those sentences, enabling him or her to refine the hypotheses further, based on accumulated knowledge, in a virtuous learning cycle.

3. Beat your enemies-like excessive TV watching. Watching TV five hours a day has an effect on your brain: it trains one’s brain to become a visual, usually unreflective, passive recipient of information. You may have heard the expression “Cells that fire together wire together”. Our brains are composed of billions of neurons, each of which can have thousand of connections to other neurons. Any thing we do in life is going to activate a specific networks of neurons. Visualize a million neurons firing at the same time when you watch a TV program. Now, the more TV you watch, the more those neurons will fire together, and therefore the more they will wire together (meaning that the connections between them become, physically, stronger), which then creates automatic-like reactions. A heavy TV-watcher is making himself or herself more passive, unreflective, person. Exactly the opposite of what one needs to apply the other tips described here. Continue Reading

Brain Teasers and Games for the Brain: Test your Brain

Frontal LobesIt is always good to stimulate our minds and to learn a bit about how our brains work. Here you have a selection of the 50 Brain Teasers that people have enjoyed the most in our blog and speaking engagements.

Fun experiments on how our brains work

1. Do you think you know the colors?: try the Stroop Test.

2. Can you count?: Basketball attention experiment (Interactive).

3. Who is this?: A very important little guy (Interactive).

4. How is this possible?.

5. Take the Senses Challenge (Interactive).

6. Are there more brain connections or leaves in the Amazon?.

AttentionTwo In One Task

7. How are your divided attention skills? check out “Inside and Outside” (Interactive, from MindFit).

8. Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? try “Two in One” (Interactive, from MindFit)

9. Count the Fs in this sentence.

10. What do you see? can you alternate between 2 views?.

MemoryPicasso Task

11. Easy one…draw the face of a penny, please. Read the rest of this entry »

Working Memory: an image that says much

Working memory

(Graph Source: Klingberg et al, 2005)

Working memory is a key cognitive function that allows you to hold several units of information in mind “online” for brief periods of time, typically a few seconds, and manage them.

For example, if I tell you the 7 digits of my telephone number, would you remember them? and, could you tell them back to me…in reverse order?

Questions:

– What if that curve could be moved upwards?

– What activities may help kids and youth expand working memory?

– What activities can help adults over 30 reduce that rate of decline?

– And what is the relationship between working memory and the brain?

To Be Continued…

Best of the Brain from Scientific American

Best of Brain, Scientific American

The Dana Foundation kindly sent us a copy of the great book Best of the Brain from Scientific American, a collection of 21 superb articles published previously in Scientific American magazine. A very nicely edited and illustrated book, this is a must for anyone who enjoys learning about the brain and speculating about what the future will bring us.

Some essays, like the ones by Eric Kandel (The New Science of Mind), Fred Gage (Brain, Repair Yourself), Carl Zimmer (The Neurobiology of the Self) and that by Steven Hollon, Michael Thase and John Markowitz (Treating Depression: Pills or Talk), are both intellectual feasts and very relevant to brain fitness. And finally starting to percolate into mainstream consciousness.

Let me quote some quotes and reflections as I was reading the book a couple of days ago, in the courtyard of a beautiful French cafe in Berkeley:

1) On Brain Plasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire itself), Fred Gage says: “Within the past 5 years, however, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain does indeed change throughout life-…The new cells and connections that we and others have documented may provide the extra capacity the brain requires for the variety of challenges that individuals face throughout life. Such plasticity offers a possible mechanism through which the brain might be induced to repair itself after injury or disease. It might even open the prospect of enhancing an already healthy brain’s power to think and ability to feel”

2)  and How Experience affects Brain Structure: Under the section title “A Brain Workout”, Fred Gage says “One of the mot striking aspects of neurogenesis (Note: the creation of new neurons) is that experience can regulate the rate of cell division, the survival of newborn neurons and their ability to integrate into the existing neural circuits…The best way to augment brain function might not involve drugs or cell implants but lifestyle changes.”

3) Biology of Mind: Eric Kandel provides a wonderful overview of the most Read the rest of this entry »

Every man can, if he so desires, sculpt his own brain

Santiago Ramon y CajalA Spanish friend and neuroscientist just reminded me of a great quote by Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934): “todo hombre puede ser, si se lo propone, escultor de su propio cerebro“.

Which means: “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor his own brain“.

Which really means: “Each of us can literally refine the structure and function of our brains, the same way we can do so with the rest of our body muscles” (my 2 cents…).

Our daily thoughts and actions, learnings, meditation, cognitive therapy, the growing number of software-based programs, and more, are “sculpting” tools…no more no less than tools. Good for some goals and contexts, like improving concentration and memory, becoming “sharper”, helping protect our minds from decline, or manage stress better.

I just bought Cajal’s autobiography, titled Recollections of My Life (thanks, Mind Hacks). Will be writing about it in a month or so-I have too many books on the table now, and only one brain.

If you want to read some good neuroscience blog posts, you can find a nice collection in the latest edition of Encephalon, hosted by Dr Deborah Serani.

For general science ones, try Tangled Bank. For education, enjoy The Education Carnival.

Finally, I will be hosting the next edition of Carnival of the Capitalists (I don’t really love the name…but it is the oldest and best blog carnival for business and economics). If you have some good posts, please submit them here.

For some additional thoughts on sculpting brains, intelligence, and becoming smarter, you can check this post.

Training the Aging Workforce

Alice Snell kindly brings to our attention her nice post, Baby Boomers: The Beat Goes On, commenting on several reports and articles on the aging workforce challenge. 

This is a very important topic, and directly related to what we are doing. Let me provide an overview with these 10 points. First, some context:

1) The Conference Board published a good report in 2005 titled America’s Aging Workforce Posing New Opportunities and Challenges. Quotes:

  • “Some 64 million baby boomers (over 40 percent of the U.S. labor force) are poised to retire in large numbers by the end of this decade. In industries already facing labor and skills shortages, forward-thinking companies are recruiting, retaining, and developing flexible work-time arrangements and/or phased retirement plans for these workers (55 years of age or older), many of whom have skills that are difficult to replace. Such actions are putting these companies ahead of competitors who view the aging workforce largely as a burden putting strains on pension plans and healthcare costs.”
  • “More older workers want to remain in their jobs for both personal fulfillment and financial reasons. In a related forthcoming study from The Conference Board, more than half (55 percent) of older employees surveyed said they were not planning to retire because they find their jobs interesting. Significantly, 74 percent also cited not having sufficient financial resources as a reason they were continuing to work, and 60 percent cited the need for medical benefits.”

Not only in the US: the largest single group within the UK workforce in 2006 was comprised of people between 45 and 59.

2) Some consulting companies like Accenture seem to be betting that the solution will be to improve technology for knowledge transfer and train younger employees as soon as possible (interview notes of the conversation between Accenture’s CEO Bill Green and William J. Holstein, editor in chief of Chief Executive magazine.)

3) And the market for Talent Management and Succession Planning solutions has been growing steadily, and Read the rest of this entry »

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