Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

(Editor’s Note: inter­view­ing Richard Nis­bett, author of the excel­lent Intelligence and How to Get Itrecent book Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count, was in our To Do list. We then found that fel­low blog­ger David DiS­alvo was faster than we were and did a great job, so here we bring you David’s inter­view and take.)

While the debate over intel­li­gence rages on many fronts, the bat­tle over the impor­tance of hered­ity rages loud­est. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intel­li­gence is 75 to 85 per­cent genet­i­cally deter­mined is cor­rect, then we’re faced with some tough ques­tions about the role of edu­ca­tion. If intel­li­gence is improved very lit­tle by schools, and if the IQ of the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion will remain rel­a­tively unchanged no mat­ter how well schools per­form, then should school reform really be a priority?

More to the point, if our genes largely deter­mine our IQ, which in turn under­lies our per­for­mance through­out our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that ques­tion is sim­ply, “to be the best you can be.” But that seems lit­tle com­fort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ cat­e­gory pre­dicts they will.

Those on the other side of this debate ques­tion whether hered­ity plays as big a role as the strong hered­i­tar­i­ans claim. And for the role it does play, they ques­tion whether hered­itabil­ity implies immutabil­ity. Hered­ity of height, for exam­ple, is about 90 per­cent, and yet aver­age height in sev­eral pop­u­la­tions around the world has been steadily increas­ing due to non-genetic influ­ences, like nutri­tion. If such a strong hered­i­tary trait can be rad­i­cally altered by envi­ron­men­tal factors–and height is but one exam­ple of this–then why is intel­li­gence different?

It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intel­li­gence opti­mists. For them, the pes­simism that col­ors the strong hered­i­tar­ian posi­tion isn’t only dis­cour­ag­ing, it’s dan­ger­ous. Too much is hang­ing in the bal­ance for pes­simism about the poten­tial of our chil­dren to prevail.

Richard NisbettRichard Nis­bett is a cham­pion of the intel­li­gence opti­mist camp, and with his lat­est book, Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count , he has emerged as the most per­sua­sive voice mar­shalling evi­dence to dis­prove the heredity-is-destiny argu­ment. Intel­lec­tual advance­ment, Nis­bett argues, is not the result of hard­wired genetic codes, but the province of con­trol­lable fac­tors like schools and social environments–and as such, improv­ing these fac­tors is cru­cially impor­tant. Read the rest of this entry »

Improving the world, and one’s brain, at the same time

My wife and I just came back from an inspir­ing Gold­man Prize Award cer­e­mony, where seven grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal change­mak­ers were rec­og­nized for their work and resiliency, and shared their pas­sion and pur­pose with every­one attend­ing the event. We did hear too from Al Gore, Tracy Chap­man, Robert Red­ford, and the founder of the awards 20 years ago, Richard Goldman.

The BBC recently pub­lished an Op-Ed by Mr. Gold­man on the story behind the Awards them­selves: arti­cle Here. He explains how…

  • - “One morn­ing in 1989, as I sat with my daily break­fast and news­pa­per, I read about the most recent Nobel lau­re­ates and won­dered if there was a com­pa­ra­ble award for envi­ron­men­tal work.”
  • - “We asked a staff mem­ber at our foun­da­tion to do some research and he found that noth­ing yet existed to recog­nise envi­ron­men­tal work on an inter­na­tional stage, thus the Gold­man Prize was born.”
  • - “Our choice to focus specif­i­cally on grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers was unique at the time.”

Mr. Gold­man, and the seven win­ners, are clearly help­ing improve the state of the world.

Now, the “state of the world” does include their very own brains — you may have seen this recent paper on how Vol­un­teer Pro­gram Pro­vides Health Ben­e­fits To Older Women

  • - “She and her col­leagues found that EC vol­un­teers showed greater improve­ments in mem­ory and exec­u­tive func­tion than those who did not par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram. In fact, the older adults with the low­est base­line per­for­mance in these areas — those most at risk for health dis­par­i­ties — demon­strated the most sig­nif­i­cant gains.”
  • - “Both stud­ies high­lighted above show that every­day activ­ity inter­ven­tions (e.g., EC) can appeal to older adults’ desires to remain socially engaged and pro­duc­tive in their post-retirement years. Simul­ta­ne­ously, these activ­i­ties pro­vide mea­sur­able phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive health benefits.”

Of course, those ben­e­fits do not accrue only for older adults (or just for women), but may help all of us grad­u­ally build Cog­ni­tive Reserves through the added nov­elty, vari­ety and challenge.

Talk about win/ win!

Related arti­cles on social entrepreneurship:

“Every­one a Change­maker”, Ashoka and Google

Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nurture

Learning about Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin

In 1993, Para­mount Pic­tures released Search­ing for Bobby Fis­cher, which depicts Joshua Waitzkin’s early chess suc­cess as he embarks on a jour­ney to win his first National chessJoshua Waitzkin cham­pi­onship. This movie had the effect of weak­en­ing his love for the game as well as the learn­ing process. His pas­sion for learn­ing was reju­ve­nated, how­ever, after years of med­i­ta­tion, and read­ing phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­ogy. With this rekin­dling of the learn­ing process, Wait­zkin took up the mar­tial art Tai Chi Chuan at the age of 21 and made rapid progress, win­ning the 2004 push hands world cham­pi­onship at the age of 27.

After read­ing Joshua’s most recent book The Art of Learn­ing, I thought of a mil­lion top­ics The Art of LearningI wanted to dis­cuss with him–topics such as being labelled a “child prodigy”, bloom­ing, cre­ativ­ity, and the learn­ing process. Thank­fully, since I was pro­fil­ing Wait­zkin for an arti­cle I was for­tu­nate enough to get a chance to have such a con­ver­sa­tion with him. I hope you find this dis­cus­sion just as provoca­tive and illu­mi­nat­ing as I did.

The Child Prodigy

S. Why did you leave chess at the top of your game?

J. This is a com­pli­cated ques­tion that I wrote about very openly in my book. In short, I had lost the love. My rela­tion­ship to the game had become externalized-by pres­sures from the film about my life, by los­ing touch with my nat­ural voice as an artist, by mis­takes I made in the growth process. At the very core of my rela­tion­ship to learn­ing is the idea that we should be as organic as pos­si­ble. We need to cul­ti­vate a deeply refined intro­spec­tive sense, and build our rela­tion­ship to learn­ing around our nuance of char­ac­ter. I stopped doing this and fell into cri­sis from a sense of alien­ation from an art I had loved so deeply. This is when I left chess behind, started med­i­tat­ing, study­ing phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­ogy, and ulti­mately moved towards Tai Chi Chuan.

S. Do you think being a child prodigy hurt your chess career in any way?

J. I have never con­sid­ered myself a prodigy. Oth­ers have used that term, but I never bought in to it. From a young age it was always about embrac­ing the bat­tle, lov­ing the game, and over­com­ing adver­sity. Grow­ing up as Read the rest of this entry »

Epigenetics: Nature vs. Nurture?

In yesterday’s inter­view with Michael Pos­ner, he says:

- “There is a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies that show the impor­tance of inter­ac­tion between our genes and each of our envi­ron­ments. Epi­ge­net­ics is going to help us under­stand that ques­tion bet­ter, but let me share a very inter­est­ing piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual inter­ac­tion between genet­ics and parenting.”

- “Good par­ent­ing, as mea­sured by dif­fer­ent research-based scales, has been shown to build good effort­ful con­trol which, as we saw ear­lier, is so impor­tant. Now, what we found is that some spe­cific genes reduced, even elim­i­nated, the influ­ence of the qual­ity of par­ent­ing. In other words, some children’s devel­op­ment really depends on how their par­ents bring them up, whereas oth­ers do not — or do to a much smaller extent.”

Now check out this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle in the Econ­o­mist:Domes­ti­ca­tion and intel­li­gence in dogs and wolves | Not so dumb animals

- “Monique Udell of the Uni­ver­sity of Florida … won­dered whether learn­ing rather than evo­lu­tion explained his obser­va­tions. Her team there­fore worked with a mix­ture of pet dogs, dogs from ani­mal shel­ters that had had min­i­mal inter­ac­tion with peo­ple, and wolves raised by humans.”

- “As they report in Ani­mal Behav­iour, the wolves out­per­formed both shel­ter dogs and pets. Indeed, Read the rest of this entry »

Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?

iq test, intelligenceGiven the recent James Wat­son “race and IQ” con­tro­versy, I took on to read Stephan Jay Gould’s clas­sic book The Mis­mea­sure of Man, in which he debunks IQ (and the under­ly­ing “g”) as mea­sure of defined, innate, “intel­li­gence”. Fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing overall, very tech­ni­cal in some areas.

The key take-away? In the last chap­ter, A Pos­i­tive Con­clu­sion, he writes that

- “Flex­i­bil­ity is the hall­mark of human evolution…In other mam­mals, explo­ration, play and flex­i­bil­ity of behav­ior are qual­i­ties of juve­niles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatom­i­cal stamp stamp of child­hood, but its men­tal flex­i­bil­ity as well…Humans are learn­ing animals”

He then relates this story from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King

- God, he recounts, cre­ated all ani­mals as embryos and called each before his throne, offer­ing them what­ever addi­tions to their anatomy they desired. All opted for spe­cial­ized adult features-the lion for claws and sharp teeth, the deer for antlers and hoofs. The human embryo stepped forth last and said: Please God, I think that you made me in the shape which I now have for rea­sons best known to Your­selves and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which you gave me…I will stay a defence­less embryo all my life, doing my best to make myself a few fee­ble imple­ments out of the wood, iron, and the other mate­ri­als which You have seen fit to put before me..” “Well done”, exclaimed the Cre­ator in delighted tone. “Here all you embryos, come here with Read the rest of this entry »

The Gene Delusion: IQ and the environment

An anony­mous reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes a superb com­ment, repro­duced here:

One thing Wat­son and oth­ers for­get is that the brain is highly mal­leable based on envi­ron­ment. Although he is the father of DNA he knows very lit­tle about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Pre­vi­ously it was thought that the human brain was ‘hard­wired’ after a cer­tain age. This is not true. Not only is not true, but the human mind is capa­ble of adap­ta­tion but actual neu­ron growth even late in life. Ten years ago this was thought impossible.

Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and neu­ro­plas­tic­ity proves that a nur­tur­ing social and fam­ily set­ting shifts IQ, per­spec­tive, and emo­tional IQ. The so-called bell curve isn’t genetic. Oppressed Tibetans and Chi­nese eth­nic minori­ties –whose test scores soar in the United States and Canada– are 20–30 points lower in their home­land. That 20–30 points deficit is in the same range of a lot of groups that are attacked or threat­ened (Mus­lims in France, Chris­tians in Nige­ria, Blacks in Amer­ica). Con­versely when oppressed groups are removed from their envi­ron­ment their IQ, emo­tional health returns to a nor­mal rate, thus prov­ing that is NOT genetic.

It is plas­tic, shift­ing and based upon the environment.

That is why peo­ple 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 »


Welcome to

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN,, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and wellness applications of brain science.

FIRST-TIME VISITOR? Discover HERE the most popular resources at

New market report on Pervasive Neurotechnology & Intellectual Property

Haven’t you read this book yet?

Newsletter Signup

Enter Your Email to receive Sharp­Brains free, monthly eNewslet­ter:
Join more than 50,000 Sub­scribers and stay informed and engaged.

Follow Us…


Subscribe RSS Feed

Subscribe to the RSS Feed