Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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?


- 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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