Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Exercise your brain at these events

Here are the dates and locations of some upcoming events where I will be presenting. Please introduce yourself if you are attending!

>> September 4-5th, San Francisco, CA: several Brain Health Promotion sessions, at the American Society on Aging conference.

>> October 9th, Vancouver, Canada: Exercising Our Brains 101 and Navigating The Brain Fitness Maze, at the British Columbia Seniors Living Association annual conference.

>> October 11th, San Jose, CA: The Science and Practice of Brain Fitness, at San Jose State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. (Information here).

>> October 23rd, Pocatello, Idaho: Cognitive and Emotional Training for Healthy Aging, at the Idaho Conference on Health Care. (Information here).

>> November 1st, Berkeley, CA: The Science and Practice of Brain Fitness, at UC-Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. (Information here).

>> November 7-9th, Dubai: Global Agenda Councils Inaugural Summit in Dubai, organized by the World Economic Forum. (Information here).

>> November 17th, New York City: The Emerging Brain Fitness Field: Research and Implications, at New York Public Library.

>> December 5th, San Antonio, Texas: The Emerging Brain Fitness Field: Overview of Research and Tools, at the International Council on Active Aging conference. (Information here).

As always, I will share the main take-aways via this blog. I hope to meet some of you down the road!

Cognitive Fitness @ UC-Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Quick post for my UC-Berkeley OLLI students: here are the links I promised.

– Collection of 50 Brain Teasers.

Neuroscience Interview Series including in-depth notes of interviews with leading scientists and practitioners.

Build Your Cognitive Reserve-Yaakov Stern: which talks about the Cognitive Reserve and Alzheimer’s symptoms, and includes a great clip on the famous “nun study”.

Articles and Papers: a collection of good reading materials.

Books: the selection of books we discussed.

YouTube Channel: some clips you will enjoy to refresh your class memories.



Brain Wellness: Train Your Brain to Be Happier

I am delighted to participate in LifeTwo’s “How to be Happier” week with this post. Happiness is still largely unchartered territory for neuroscience. It sounds like a hidden, elusive El Dorado. However, once one follows positive psychology research and Harvard’s Dr. Ben-Shahar’s advice, “The question should not be whether you are happy but what you can do to become happier”, the happiness quest starts to become more tangible and workable according to latest neuroscience research.

We are now going to explore the four key concepts of Dr. Ben-Shahar’s statement — 1) “you”, 2) “can”, 3) “do”, and 4) “happier” — from a neuropsychological perspective.

1) Who is “you”? According to latest scientific understanding, what we experience as “mind”, our Frontal Lobesawareness, emerges from the physical brain. So, if we want to refine our minds, we better start by understanding and training our brains. A very important reality to appreciate: each brain is unique, since it reflects our unique lifetime experiences. Scientists have already shown how even adult brains retain a significant ability to continually generate new neurons and literally rewire themselves. So, each of us is unique, with our own aspirations, emotional preferences, capacities, and each of us in continually in flux. A powerful concept to remind ourselves: “you” can become happier means that “you” are the only person who can take action and evaluate what works for “you”. And “you” means the mind that emerges from your own, very personal, unique, and constantly evolving, brain. Which only “you” can train.

2) Why the use of “can”? Well, this reminds me a great quote by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who said that “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain“. Each of us has immense potential. However, in the same way that Michaelangelo’s David didn’t spontaneously appear out-of-the-blue one day, becoming happier requires attention, intention, and actual practice.

Attention: Every second, you choose what to pay attention to. You can focus on the negative and thereby train your brain to focus on the negative. You can Read the rest of this entry »

carnival of the capitalists with a brain- September 17, 2007


Welcome to the September 17, 2007 edition of carnival of the capitalists.

First, a puzzle. Why do we have the brains we have? specifically, why do humans have proportionally bigger and better connected frontal lobes (the blue area behind our foreheads) than any other species? The answer: to be able to learn and adapt to changing environments during our lifetime. Neuroscientists say that the frontal lobes are the “CEO of the brain”, and that we need that type of frontal lobes to exercise our so-called “Executive Functions” that enable us to 1) Understand our environments, 2) Set goals and define strategies to accomplish our goals, 3) Execute those strategies well.Frontal Lobes

Now, let’s see how all these carnival contributors are putting their frontal lobes to good use. Given the volume of submissions received, we had to be really selective. Enjoy!


1) Understanding our environment: macroeconomy, real estate slowdown, and lobbying.

James wonders, “Can the Fed begin as it must to cut the target rate and still avoid Tim’s slippery slope? I think so, and here’s how.”

Ian presents a forceful case that No, Greenspan Doesn’t Get To Rehabilitate His Reputation, at Firedoglake. Very timely post, given that Greenspan is releasing his book today. 

“The recent sub-prime mortgage fiasco and its effect on our investments prompted us to reconsider our portfolio’s risk tolerance capability”, says FIRE Finance, outlining these Investment Risks at a Glance. Along similar lines, we can read that “I am not hoping for the market to get worse. I just know it will, because that is the nature of market cycles” at Is The Housing Crisis and Stock Market Decline Bad Enough Yet?, by My Wealth Builder.

If you wonder what may have contributed to the real estate mess growing so big, you may enjoy reading Pork: Wha’ss On The Barbeque In Congress Is Your Future. The Agonist says: “In the United States today, the simplest, easiest and safest way to make money is to Read the rest of this entry »

Executive Functions and Google/ Microsoft Brain Teasers

Interesting article: Want a job at Google? Try these brainteasers first (CNN)

Quote: “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.”

Comment: What are those companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon) after? Employees with good Executive Functions. You can try some of the fun teasers in the article:

1) How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?

  • About 500,000, assuming the bus is 50 balls high, 50 balls wide, and 200 balls long

2) You’re shrunk and trapped in a blender that will turn on in 60 seconds. What do you do?

Some options:

1. Use the measurement marks to climb out

2. Try to unscrew the glass

3. Risk riding out the air current

3) How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?

  • Assuming 10,000 city blocks, 600 windows per block, five minutes per window, and a rate of $20 per hour, about $10 million


PS: Enjoy these 50 brain teasers to test your cognitive ability. Free, and fun for adults of any age!


Top Ten Tips for Women Who Lead Men

Thinking menEllen recently wrote a nice post titled Top Ten Tips for Men Who Lead Women, and asked for volunteers to offer a complementary perspective. I hope you enjoy!

  1. We men know we are hard to lead, and that can be stressful for you and for us. You should know that stress affects short term memory, so it is important to be able to manage stress well, with meditation or other methods. Check here your level of stress to see how much this point applies to you. Please remember, laughing is good for your brain.
  2. Don’t think too much-we don’t. If we do, we try to find ways to self-talk us out of that uncomfortable state.
  3. Please remember our humble origins. We are tool-using animals, which is why we like playing with all kinds of toys, from a car to that blackberry.
  4. When we are stubborn, you are entitled to remind us that even apes can learn-if you help us see the point. Show us that change is possible at any age. Believe it or not, we can listen.
  5. Especially if we can find common ground: what about chatting about sports psychology?.
  6. Please motivate us to listen and be open minded to learn with wise words. If that doesn’t work, please persevere with nice words. Please don’t ever say that we are worse than pink dolphins-if we feel attacked, we’ll just disengage.
  7. Sometimes we don’t cooperate enough?. Please give us time for our brains to fully evolve, we have been trying for a while!
  8. You can help us grow. For the next leadership workshop, buy us copies of the Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain book. You may think we don’t need this… but at our core we really want to get better at Gratitude and Altruism. We want to be able to play with the ultimate toy: our genes!
  9. If that book is sold out, we could also benefit from reading Damasio’s Descartes Error and discover how emotions are important for good decision-making. Or help us improve our ability to read emotional messages. As long as we believe we can somehow benefit from it, we’ll try!
  10. If you lead someone with Bill Gates-like Frontal Lobes, congratulate him for his brain. If you don’t, encourage him to follow track. Please be patient

Now, any takers for Top Ten Tips for Women Who Lead Women or Men Who Lead Men?

Bill Gates Harvard commencement speech (and his Frontal Lobes)

Bill Gates delivered a very inspiring commencement speech in Harvard last week. I recommend reading the full Remarks of Bill Gates and reflecting on his core message, which may be summarized in its last sentence:

  • “And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities  on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.”

A noteworthy aspect of the speech was the display of what neuropsychologists call Executive Functions, which are mostly located in our Frontal Lobes-the most recent part of our brains in evolutionary terms, and that enable us to learn and adapt to new environments. What makes a “sharp brain”. You can read more about this in our post Executive Functions and MacArthur “Genius Grants”.

See here Bill Gates’ advice on how to find solutions in complex environments-and how he applies a learned pattern to guide his actions in the field of AIDS prevention:

  • “Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.”
  • “The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.”
  • “Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working  and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century  which is to surrender to complexity and quit.”
  • “The final step  after seeing the problem and finding an approach  is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.”

Certainly, good advice for us too to refine our Brain Fitness efforts. Here you have a relevant fragment of my (AF)recent interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG):

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typically call them the Executive Brain. The prefrontal cortex is young by evolutionary terms, and is the brain area critical to adapt to new situations, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objectives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our forehead, acts as the conductor of an orchestra, directing and integrating the work of other parts of the brain.

I provide a good example in The Executive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to organize my escape from Russia into the US.

Significantly, the pathways that connect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reaching full operational state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typically the first areas to decline.

Well, I’d say Mr. Gates has pretty mature and solid pathways!

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