Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cognitive Development

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this article thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine.)

At a time when educators are preoccupied with standards, testing, and the bottom line, some researchers suggest the arts can boost students’ test scores; others aren’t convinced. Karin Evans asks, What are the arts good for?


When poet and national endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Commencement Address at Stanford University, he used the occasion to deliver an impassioned argument for the value of the arts and arts education.

“Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world,” said Gioia. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images. Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions.”

For years, arts advocates like Gioia have been making similar pleas, stressing the intangible benefits of the arts at a time when many Americans are preoccupied with a market–driven culture of entertainment, and schools are consumed with meeting federal standards. Art brings joy, these advocates say, or it evokes our humanity, or, in the words of my 10–year–old daughter, “It cools kids down after all the other hard stuff they have to think about.”

Bolstering the case for the arts has become increasingly necessary in recent years, as school budget cuts and the move toward standardized testing have profoundly threatened the role of the arts in schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, the federal government started assessing school districts by their students’ scores on reading and mathematics tests.

As a result, according to a study by the Center on Education Policy, school districts across the United States increased the time they devoted to tested subjects—reading/language arts and math—while cutting spending on non–tested subjects such as the visual arts and music. The more a school fell behind, by NCLB standards, the more time and money was devoted to those tested subjects, with less going to the arts. The National Education Association has reported that the cuts fall hardest on schools with high numbers of minority children.

And the situation is likely to worsen as state budgets get even tighter. Already, in a round of federal education cuts for 2006 and 2007, arts education nationally was slashed by $35 million. In 2008, the New York City Department of Education’s annual study of Read the rest of this entry »

Are Schools (Cognitively) Nutritive for Children’s Complex Thinking?

Today we host a very stimulating essay on the importance of problem-solving and encouraging complex game-playing for children’s complete “cognitive nutrition”. Enjoy!

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Children’s Complex Thinking

— By Tom O’Brien and Christine Wallach

Pop over to your neighborhood school and visit some classrooms. Is what’s happening cognitively nutritive? That is, does it satisfy present needs and provide nourishment for the future health and development of children’s thinking?

Or is it punitive, with little concern for present nourishment and future health and development?

The Genevan psychologist and researcher Hermina Sinclair said, Read the rest of this entry »

Learning & The Brain Conference: discount for SharpBrains readers

San Francisco Golden Gate BridgeContext: Last February we had the chance to attend a great conference on how brain research is influencing education. Highly recommended. Caroline wrote our impressions, summarized as “It was a fascinating mix of neuroscientists and educators talking with and listening to each other. Some topics were meant to be applied today, but many were food for thought – insight on where science and education are headed and how they influence each other”. See some of our take-aways below.

Announcement: the 2008 edition of this conference, titled Using Brain Research to Enhance Learning, Attention & Memory For Educators, Parents and Clinicians, will take place in San Francisco, on February 7-9th, 2008. The organizers have kindly invited me to deliver a lecture on Interventions to Sharpen Minds, as part of the Brain Plasticity & Attention track. I will provide an overview of the science behind computer-based cognitive training interventions and discuss a number of research-based programs that are being used today. Let me know if you are planning to attend!

Registration fees: the general registration fees are $495 per person, if you register before January 25th, 2008.

Special Discount for SharpBrains readers: you can register for $450 before that date,  making sure to write
SharpBrains1 in the comments section of How did you hear about the conference? in this Registration Page.

To learn more about the conference: Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Exercise and Fitness: September Monthly Digest

Crossword PuzzleFollowing our July and August editions, here you have our Monthly Digest of the Most Popular Blog Posts. Today, October 2nd, we will list the most popular September posts. You can consider it your monthly Brain Exercise Magazine.

(Also, remember that you can subscribe to receive our RSS feed, check our Topics section, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter at the top of this page).

Market News

Education, Training, Health events: some events I will blog about/ speak at over the next 2-weeks.

Brain Fitness and SharpBrains.com in the Press: including a great Washington Post article.

Brains Way Smarter Than Ours (and yours, probably): roundup of relevant news, including some Awards.

News you can use

10 (Surprising) Memory Improvement Tips: on the relationship between stress and memory.

Judith Beck: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person: a cognitive therapy pioneer tells us about the latest application of brain training: diets.

Brain Wellness: Train Your Brain to Be Happier: our essay to participate in LifeTwo’s Happiness week.

Research

11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth about Brain Training: summary of our 11 original interviews with leading neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists.

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary: no one is born knowing it all…check this summary of concepts and keywords that can help navigate through the brain fitness field.

Working Memory: an image that says much: bad and good news.

Best of the Brain from Scientific American: review of this great book.

An online application system is now open for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.

Corporate Training & Leadership

Carnival of the capitalists with a brain: we hosted this business blog carnival with a brain spice.

Executive Functions and Google/ Microsoft Brain Teasers: examples of what our executive functions are.

Software Product News

MindFit by CogniFit, and Baroness Susan Greenfield: a brain fitness program starting to get traction in Europe.

Penn Treaty First To Offer Brain Fitness Program: today’s press release on another brain training software (Posit Science)’s deal with an insurance provider.

Visualization Software of IBM for the Future of Medicine: Interview: “It’s like Google Earth for the body”. Hopefully it will include the brain.

Brain Teasers

Brain Teasers with a Neuroscience angle: enjoy.

SharpBrains Announcements

Services: we will formally announce soon how we “help companies, health providers, investors, and policymakers understand and profit from the emerging brain fitness field.” But now you know.

Speaking: if your organization needs a good speaker and brain fitness expert, please contact us.

Finally, we are starting to look for qualified guest bloggers to add their perspective. If you are interested, please contact us and let us know about what you would like to write about, and include a brief bio or links to samples. Thank you.

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 »

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 »

Brain Fitness Program 2.0, MindFit, and much more on Brain Training

Let’s quickly review 4 recent articles in both “Times” newspapers: the New York Times and the UK-based Times, on brain fitness and a couple of programs. 

1) Calisthenics for the Older Mind, on the Home Computer: good overview of one of the growing areas for cognitive training, “healthy aging”.emWave for Stress Management

  • Quotes:
  • – “In the past year, some half-dozen programs, with names like Brain Fitness Program 2.0, MindFit and Brain Age2, have aimed at aging consumers eager to keep their mental edge. Read the rest of this entry »

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