Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


A Brain Fitness Vacation

San PedroA year ago we wrote a Glos­sary where we defined Brain Fit­ness as “the gen­eral state of good, sharp, brain and mind, espe­cially as the result of men­tal and phys­i­cal exer­cise and proper nutri­tion” and a Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram as a “struc­tured set of brain exer­cises, usu­ally computer-based, designed to train spe­cific brain areas and func­tions in tar­geted ways, and mea­sured by brain fit­ness assessments.”

Now, thanks to this recent arti­cle Alvaro and Lisa’s Brain Vaca­tion, we can add Brain Fit­ness Vaca­tion: “A brain fit­ness vaca­tion is like a reg­u­lar vaca­tion, only you attend events, do exer­cises, and arrange for expe­ri­ences that address the aspects of good brain health: phys­i­cal exer­cise, men­tal exer­cise, good nutri­tion, and stress management.”

Dave Bun­nell, the founder and edi­tor of new mag­a­zine ELDR (and pre­vi­ously edi­tor of PC World, PC Mag­a­zine, Upside, and many other mag­a­zines) met Dr. Gold­berg and myself after our speech in SFSU last May. When he showed an inter­est in writ­ing a story, and I men­tioned half-jokingly that it would have to wait a few weeks since my wife and I were about to take a much needed “brain fit­ness vaca­tion”, he said, well, maybe that’s the story!.

You can read the full arti­cle here. For the ben­e­fit of the atten­dants to my lec­tures this week, who may be look­ing for some addi­tional brain exer­cises, here go some quotes:

  • Guessti­ma­tion. Lisa asks Alvaro a ques­tion, “How many trees are there in San Fran­cisco?” To come up with an answer, Alvaro first tries to guess how many trees, on aver­age, there are in a city block. He then cal­cu­lates approx­i­mately how many blocks there are in a square mile, fol­lowed by how many square miles there are in San Fran­cisco, and so on.
  • Num­ber Series. Alvaro says, “Two, three,” and Lisa replies, “four, six.” Alvaro then says, “Six, nine,” and Lisa replies, “Eight, twelve.” He says,“Ten, fif­teen,” and the sequence goes on as long and as fast as you can keep doing it.
  • Haiku. Dur­ing the entire vaca­tion, Alvaro and Lisa com­posed haiku for each other every morn­ing. The rule was they couldn’t write them down. They had to cre­ate them in their heads and remem­ber them.
  • Sen­sory train­ing. Lisa puts a piece of choco­late into Alvaro’s mouth while his eyes are closed. He lets it melt com­pletely with­out chew­ing and with­out open­ing his eyes. Next, he puts a grape in Lisa’s mouth.
  • Visu­al­iza­tions. Alvaro and Lisa sit qui­etly for about 15 min­utes, breathe deeply using their diaphragms, and visu­al­ize spe­cial moments from their past, such as the most beau­ti­ful view they’ve ever seen, or a lov­ing per­sonal moment.


Pic credit: San Pedro de Alcan­tara, Spain (Wikipedia)

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Given the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­ity”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regarded “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­omy, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­elty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, together with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress management.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­ian Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­ory has a max­i­mum limit of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­ska Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic processes can not be reor­ga­nized by repeated prac­tice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tional man­age­ment, mem­ory, visual/ spa­tial, audi­tory processes and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and problem-solving.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chronic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vated due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essential.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tific inquiry is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­ity of trained med­i­ta­tors to develop and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tively with pow­er­ful emo­tional states and stress through the directed men­tal processes of med­i­ta­tion practices.

And now, some keywords:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cises, usu­ally computer-based, designed to train spe­cific brain areas and processes in tar­geted ways.

Chronic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and Read the rest of this entry »

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training

Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity: the brain’s abil­ity to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life. (see more con­cepts in our Glos­sary).

We coudn’t be hap­pier about the grow­ing num­ber of books pop­u­lar­iz­ing the key lessons about brain train­ing that Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg has been research­ing and writ­ing about for years, and that moti­vated us to embark our­selves in the Sharp­Brains adventure.

Dis­cover Mag­a­zine presents a great arti­cle, Rewiring the Brain, review­ing two recent books.

  • The sub­ti­tle is “Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity can allow for treat­ment of senil­ity, post-traumatic stress, ­obsessive-compulsive dis­or­der, and depres­sion and Bud­dhists have been cap­i­tal­iz­ing on it for mil­lenia.” I would add that the strong value of life­long learn­ing present in jesuit and jew­ish tra­di­tions reflects the same wis­dom. Some quotes:
  • Two new books, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Bal­lan­tine Books, $24.95) by sci­ence jour­nal­ist Sharon Beg­ley and The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, $24.95) by psy­chi­a­trist Nor­man Doidge, offer mas­ter­fully guided tours through the bur­geon­ing field of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity research. Each has its own style and empha­sis; both are excellent.”
  • Finally, both authors con­clude that adult neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is a vastly under­tapped resource, one with which West­ern med­i­cine and psy­chol­ogy are just now com­ing to grips. An impor­tant emerg­ing research agenda is to Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health Newsletter, February Edition, and Brain Awareness Week

We hope you are enjoy­ing the grow­ing cov­er­age of Brain Fit­ness as much as we are. Below you have the Brain Fit­ness Newslet­ter we sent a few days ago-you can sub­scribe to this monthly email update in the box on the right hand side.

In this post, we will briefly cover:

I. Press: see what CBS and Time Mag­a­zine are talk­ing about. Sharp­Brains was intro­duced in the Birm­ing­ham News, Chicago Tri­bune and in a quick note car­ried by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion news service.

II. Events: we are out­reach part­ners for the Learn­ing & the Brain con­fer­ence, which will gather neu­ro­sci­en­tists and edu­ca­tors, and for the Dana Foundation’s Brain Aware­ness Week.

III. Pro­gram Reviews: The Wall Street Jour­nal reviewed six dif­fer­ent pro­grams for brain exer­cise and aging, and the one we offer is one of the two win­ners. A college-level coun­sel­ing cen­ter starts offer­ing our stress man­age­ment one. And we inter­view a Notre Dame sci­en­tist who has con­ducted a repli­ca­tion study for the work­ing mem­ory train­ing pro­gram for kids with ADD/ ADHD.

IV. New Offer­ings: we have started to offer two infor­ma­tion pack­ages that can be very use­ful for peo­ple who want to bet­ter under­stand this field before they com­mit to any par­tic­u­lar pro­gram: learn more about our Brain Fit­ness 101 guide and Exer­cise Your Brain DVD.

V. Web­site and Blog Sum­mary: we revamped our home page and have had a very busy month writ­ing many good arti­cles. We also hosted two “Blog Car­ni­vals”- don’t you want to know what that means?
Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Fitness Blog Carnival #1

Brain Fitness CarnivalWel­come to the inau­gural edi­tion of the Brain Fit­ness Blog Car­ni­val. The tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter  you have prob­a­bly seen the fea­tured CBS News/TIME Series on Brain Neuroplasticity.

Thanks to the over 40 peo­ple who sub­mit­ted posts. We have had to select the posts we enjoyed the most to help facil­i­tate an engag­ing and informed conversation.

Learn­ing is phys­i­cal. Our expe­ri­ence lit­er­ally shapes our brains. And vice versa. The media seems to be focus­ing mostly on brain fit­ness for seniors, but its impli­ca­tions go beyond that, as you will see in this post by Car­o­line: What is Brain Fit­ness?, and the arti­cles in this carnival.

Science-based under­stand­ing is evolv­ing from “Use it or Lose It” to “Use It and Improve It.”  As Fast Company’s Alan Deutschman provoca­tively puts it in his last book, Change or Die. We couldn’t agree more with his sum­mary rec­om­men­da­tion: “Relate. Repeat. Reframe.” Alan presents a blog arti­cle announc­ing his book (here is his orig­i­nal arti­cle). Read the rest of this entry »

Tis Better to Give Than to Receive

Yeah, Yeah. Yeah. What­ever. Isn’t that just some­thing your mom always told you so that you wouldn’t be upset when your sib­lings got bet­ter gifts than you? Well, lo and behold, maybe Mom was right!

Researchers have found that the mesolim­bic path­way is acti­vated by char­i­ta­ble giv­ing. This area is one of the major path­ways where you find the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter dopamine, which is asso­ci­ated with the brain’s plea­sure sys­tem. Fur­ther­more, donat­ing also appears to increase the release of oxy­tocin, a hor­mone that acts as a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter and is involved in social bond­ing and build­ing trust between peo­ple.
Read the rest of this entry »

What are Cognitive Abilities and Skills, and How to Boost Them?

learn about cognitive abilityFirst of all, what is cog­ni­tion? Cog­ni­tion has to do with how a per­son under­stands and acts in the world. It is the set of abil­i­ties or processes that are part of nearly every human action.

Cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from the sim­plest to the most com­plex. They have more to do with the mech­a­nisms of how we learn, remem­ber, problem-solve, and pay atten­tion rather than with any actual knowl­edge. For instance, answer­ing the tele­phone involves at least: per­cep­tion (hear­ing the ring tone), deci­sion tak­ing (answer­ing or not), motor skill (lift­ing the receiver), lan­guage skills (talk­ing and under­stand­ing lan­guage), social skills (inter­pret­ing tone of voice and inter­act­ing prop­erly with another human being).

Men­tal func­tions or cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are based on spe­cific neu­ronal net­works. For instance mem­ory skills rely mainly on parts of the tem­po­ral lobes and parts of the frontal lobes (behind the forehead).

In the table below, you can browse through the main brain func­tions involved in cog­ni­tion. You will also find brain teasers that will help you exer­cise the cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties described. Learn, and have fun!


Cog­ni­tive Ability/Brain Func­tion
Skills involved


Recog­ni­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of sen­sory stim­uli (smell, touch, hear­ing, etc.)

Brain chal­lenges:


Abil­ity to sus­tain con­cen­tra­tion on a par­tic­u­lar object, action, or thought.
Abil­ity to man­age com­pet­ing demands in our environment.Brain challenges:


Short-term/ work­ing mem­ory (lim­ited stor­age).
Long-term mem­ory (unlim­ited storage).Brain challenges:

Motor skills

Abil­ity to mobi­lize our mus­cles and bod­ies.
Abil­ity to manip­u­late objects.

Brain chal­lenges:

  • Tap your right hand on the table. At the same time, make a cir­cu­lar move­ment with  your left hand (as if you were clean­ing the table)
  • Switch hands


Skills allow­ing us to trans­late sounds into words and gen­er­ate ver­bal output.

Brain chal­lenges:

Visual and Spa­tial Processing

Abil­ity to process incom­ing visual stimuli.Ability to under­stand spa­tial rela­tion­ship between objects.Ability to visu­al­ize images and scenarios.

Brain chal­lenges:

Exec­u­tive Functions

Abil­i­ties that enable goal-oriented behav­ior, such as the abil­ity to plan, and exe­cute a goal. These include:
Flex­i­bil­ity: the capac­ity for quickly switch­ing to the appro­pri­ate men­tal mode.
The­ory of mind: insight into other people’s inner world, their plans, their likes and dis­likes.
Antic­i­pa­tion: pre­dic­tion based on pat­tern recog­ni­tion.
Problem-solving: defin­ing the prob­lem in the right way to then gen­er­ate solu­tions and pick the right one.
Deci­sion mak­ing: the abil­ity to make deci­sions based on problem-solving, on incom­plete infor­ma­tion and on emo­tions (ours and oth­ers’).
Work­ing Mem­ory: the capac­ity to hold and manip­u­late infor­ma­tion “on-line” in real time.
Emo­tional self-regulation: the abil­ity to iden­tify and man­age one’s own emo­tions for good per­for­mance.
Sequenc­ing: the abil­ity to break down com­plex actions into man­age­able units and pri­or­i­tize them in the right order.

Inhi­bi­tion: the abil­ity to with­stand dis­trac­tion, and inter­nal urges.

Brain chal­lenges:



With age, some cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties decline, espe­cially exec­u­tive func­tions. In addi­tion, cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that are not used reg­u­larly tend to dimin­ish over time. For­tu­nately, grow­ing evi­dence shows that decline can be delayed with appro­pri­ate lifestyle options and practices.

To learn more, you can read The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age (284 pages; April 2013).


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