Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Top 7 Brainteasers for Job Interviews and Brain Challenge

A recent CNN arti­cle explains well why a grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies use brain­teasers and logic puz­zles of a type called “guessti­ma­tions” dur­ing job interviews:

- “Seem­ingly ran­dom ques­tions like these have become com­mon­place in Sil­i­con Val­ley and other tech out­posts, where com­pa­nies aren’t as inter­ested in the cor­rect answer to a tough ques­tion as they are in how a prospec­tive employee might try to solve it. Since busi­nesses today have to be able to react quickly to shift­ing mar­ket dynam­ics, they want more than engi­neers with high IQs and good col­lege tran­scripts. They want peo­ple who can think on their feet.”

What are tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies (Google, Microsoft, Ama­zon) and con­sult­ing com­pa­nies (McK­in­sey, Boston Con­sult­ing Group, Accen­ture…) look­ing for? They want employ­ees withbrain teasers job interview good so-called Exec­u­tive Func­tions: problem-solving, cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­ity, plan­ning, work­ing mem­ory, decision-making, even emo­tional self-regulation (don’t try to solve one of these puz­zles while being angry, or stressed out).

Want to try a few? Below you have our Top 7 Guesstimations/ Logic Puz­zles for Brain Challenge:

Please try to GUESS the answers to the ques­tions below based on your own log­i­cal approach. The goal is not to find out (or Google) the right answer, but to 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

Heart Rate Variability as an Index of Regulated Emotional Responding

Con­tin­u­ing with the theme of a Week of Sci­ence spon­sored by Just Sci­ence, we will high­light some of the key points in: Appel­hans BM, Luecken LJ. Heart Rate Vari­abil­ity as an Index of Reg­u­lated Emo­tional Respond­ing. Review of Gen­eral Psy­chol­ogy. 2006;10:229–240.

Defin­ing Heart Rate Vari­abil­ity
Effec­tive emo­tional reg­u­la­tion depends on being able to flex­i­bly adjust your phys­i­o­log­i­cal response to a chang­ing environment.

… heart rate vari­abil­ity (HRV) is a mea­sure of the con­tin­u­ous inter­play between sym­pa­thetic and parasym­pa­thetic influ­ences on heart rate that yields infor­ma­tion about auto­nomic flex­i­bil­ity and thereby rep­re­sents the capac­ity for reg­u­lated emo­tional responding.”

HRV reflects the degree to which car­diac activ­ity can be mod­u­lated to meet chang­ing sit­u­a­tional demands.”

The sym­pa­thetic (SNS) and parasym­pa­thetic (PNS) branches of the auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem (ANS) antag­o­nis­ti­cally influ­ence the lengths of time between con­sec­u­tive heart­beats. Faster heart rates, which can be due to increased SNS and/or lower PNS activ­ity, cor­re­spond to a shorter inter­beat inter­val while slower heart rates have a longer inter­beat inter­val, which can be attrib­uted to increased PNS and/or decreased SNS activity.

The frequency-based HRV analy­ses are based on the fact that the vari­a­tions in heart rate pro­duced by SNS and PNS activ­ity occur at dif­fer­ent speeds, or fre­quen­cies. SNS is slow act­ing and medi­ated by nor­ep­i­neph­rine while PNS influ­ence is fast act­ing and medi­ated by acetylcholine.

Read the rest of this entry »

Memory training and attention deficits: interview with Notre Dame’s Bradley Gibson

Bradley S. Gibson, Ph.D.Pro­fes­sor Bradley Gib­son is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame, and Direc­tor of the Per­cep­tion and Atten­tion Lab there. He is a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist with research inter­ests in per­cep­tion, atten­tion, and visual cog­ni­tion. Gibson’s research has been pub­lished in a vari­ety of jour­nals, includ­ing Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy, Human Per­cep­tion and Per­for­mance, Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, and Per­cep­tion & Psychophysics.

In 2006 he con­ducted the first inde­pen­dent repli­ca­tion study based on the Cogmed Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing pro­gram we dis­cussed with Dr. Torkel Kling­berg.

A local news­pa­per intro­duced some pre­lim­i­nary results of the study Atten­tion, please: Mem­ory exer­cises reduce symp­toms of ADHD. Some quotes from the articles:

- “The com­puter game has been shown to reduce ADHD symp­toms in chil­dren in exper­i­ments con­ducted in Swe­den, where it was devel­oped, and more recently in a Granger school, where it was tested by psy­chol­o­gists from the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame.

- Fif­teen stu­dents at Dis­cov­ery Mid­dle School tried RoboMemo dur­ing a five-week period in Feb­ru­ary and March, said lead researcher Brad Gibson

- As a result of that expe­ri­ence, symp­toms of inat­ten­tion and hyper­ac­tiv­ity were both reduced, accord­ing to reports by teach­ers and par­ents, Gib­son said.

- Other tests found sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in “work­ing mem­ory”, a short-term mem­ory func­tion that’s con­sid­ered key to focus­ing atten­tion and con­trol­ling impulses.

- RoboMemo’s effec­tive­ness is not as well estab­lished as med­ica­tions, and it’s a lot more work than pop­ping a pill.

- Gib­son said Notre Dame’s study is con­sid­ered pre­lim­i­nary because it involved a small num­ber of stu­dents. Another lim­i­ta­tion is that the study did not have a con­trol group of stu­dents receiv­ing a placebo treatment.

We feel for­tu­nate to inter­view Dr. Gib­son today.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Dr. Gib­son, thanks for being with us. Could you first tell us about your over­all research interests?

Dr. Bradley Gib­son (BG): Thanks for giv­ing me this oppor­tu­nity. My pri­mary research Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Training with Cognitive Simulations

Today we will con­tinue our review of the ben­e­fits of brain train­ing for spe­cific occu­pa­tions: in this case, pilots and bas­ket­ball play­ers. The lessons can be rel­e­vant not only for cor­po­rate train­ing but also for edu­ca­tion and brain health & wellness.

To do so, we will select quotes from our inter­view last year with one of the major sci­en­tists in the field of cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions, Pro­fes­sor Daniel Gopher. You can read the full inter­view here.

Prof. Gopher pub­lished an award-winning arti­cle in 1994, Gopher, D., Weil, M. and Baraket, T. (1994), Trans­fer of skill from a com­puter game trainer to flight, Human Fac­tors 36, 1–19., that con­sti­tutes a key mile­stone in the cog­ni­tive engi­neer­ing field.

On Cog­ni­tive Train­ing and Cog­ni­tive Simulations

AF: Tell us a bit about your over­all research interests

DG: My main inter­est has been how to expand the lim­its of human atten­tion, infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing and response capa­bil­i­ties which are crit­i­cal in com­plex, real-time decision-making, high-demand tasks such as fly­ing a mil­i­tary jet or play­ing pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball. Using a ten­nis anal­ogy, my goal has been, and is, how to help develop many “Wimbledon”-like cham­pi­ons. Each with their own styles, but per­form­ing to their max­i­mum capac­ity to suc­ceed in their environments.

What research over the last 15–20 years has shown is that cog­ni­tion, or what we call think­ing and per­for­mance, is really a set of skills that we can train sys­tem­at­i­cally. And that computer-based cog­ni­tive train­ers or “cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions” are the most effec­tive and effi­cient way to do so.

This is an impor­tant point, so let me empha­size it. What we have dis­cov­ered is that a key fac­tor for an effec­tive trans­fer from train­ing envi­ron­ment to real­ity is that the train­ing pro­gram ensures “Cog­ni­tive Fidelity”, this is, it should faith­fully rep­re­sent the men­tal demands that hap­pen in the real world. Tra­di­tional approaches focus instead on Read the rest of this entry »

Working Memory Training

Reminder: 60 or so sci­ence blog­gers are cel­e­brat­ing the Week of Sci­ence pre­sented at Just Sci­ence, from Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 5, through Sun­day, Feb­ru­ary 11. We will be writ­ing about “just sci­ence” this week, by dis­cussing peer-reviewed research papers in the field of brain fitness.

Yes­ter­day we talked about Cog­ni­tive Reserve and Lifestyle, a paper and research area that helps build the case for men­tal stimulation/ brain exer­cise if we care about long-term healthy aging.

Today we will approach the sub­ject of cog­ni­tive train­ing from the oppo­site cor­ner: we will dis­cuss imme­di­ate ben­e­fits of train­ing for qual­ity of life and per­for­mance in chil­dren with ADD/ ADHD. Some of the most promis­ing effects seen are those that show how work­ing mem­ory train­ing can gen­er­al­ize into bet­ter com­plex rea­son­ing (mea­sured by Ravens), inhi­bi­tion (Stroop) and ADD/ ADHD symp­toms rat­ings, beyond WM improvements.

Our main char­ac­ter: Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, whom we had the for­tune to inter­view last Sep­tem­ber (full notes at Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing and RoboMemo: Inter­view with Dr. Torkel Kling­berg), and who has since received the preti­gious Philip’s Nordic Prize.

We high­light some of the inter­view notes: Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive Reserve and Lifestyle

Update: we now have an in-depth inter­view with Yaakov Stern, lead­ing advo­cate of the cog­ni­tive reserve the­ory, and one of the authors of the paper we review below: click on Build Your Cog­ni­tive Reserve-Yaakov Stern. 


In honor of the Week of Sci­ence pre­sented at Just Sci­ence from Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 5, through Sun­day, Feb­ru­ary 11, we will be writ­ing about “just sci­ence” this week. We thought we would take this time to dis­cuss more deeply some of the key sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tions in brain fitness.

Today, we will high­light the key points in an excel­lent review of cog­ni­tive reserve: Scarmeas, Niko­laos and Stern, Yaakov. Cog­ni­tive reserve and lifestyle. Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal and Exper­i­men­tal Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy. 2003;25:625–33.

What is Cog­ni­tive Reserve?
The con­cept of a cog­ni­tive reserve has been around since 1998 when a post mortem analy­sis of 137 peo­ple with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease showed that the patients exhib­ited fewer clin­i­cal symp­toms than their actual pathol­ogy sug­gested. (Katz­man et al. 1988) They also showed higher brain weights and greater num­ber of neu­rons when com­pared to age-matched con­trols. The inves­ti­ga­tors hypoth­e­sized that the patients had a larger “reserve” of neu­rons and abil­i­ties that off­set the losses caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then the con­cept of cog­ni­tive reserve has been defined as the abil­ity of an indi­vid­ual to tol­er­ate pro­gres­sive brain pathol­ogy with­out demon­strat­ing clin­i­cal cog­ni­tive symp­toms.
Read the rest of this entry »


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