Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


How to improve memory skills and remember what you read: Beyond phonics and “whole language”

Horizontal Stacked BooksDespite the increas­ing visual media we are increas­ingly exposed to, read­ing is still an impor­tant skill. Whether it is school text­books, online news­pa­pers or reg­u­lar books, peo­ple still read, though not as much as they used to. One rea­son that many peo­ple don’t read much is that they don’t read well. For them, Read the rest of this entry »

Study: Dyslexia not related to intelligence. Implications for discrepancy model?

NIH-funded study finds dyslexia not tied to IQ (NIH press release):

At left, brain areas active in typ­i­cally devel­op­ing read­ers engaged in a rhyming task. Shown at right is the brain area acti­vated in poor read­ers involved in the same task.

- “Regard­less of high or low over­all scores on an IQ test, chil­dren with dyslexia show sim­i­lar pat­terns of brain activ­ity, accord­ing to researchers sup­ported by the National Insti­tutes of Health. The results call into ques­tion the dis­crep­ancy model — the prac­tice of clas­si­fy­ing a child as dyslexic on the basis of a lag between read­ing abil­ity and over­all IQ scores.”

- “In many school sys­tems, the dis­crep­ancy model is the cri­te­rion for Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Development Through Bilingual Education and Activities Requiring Self-Control

How To Help Your Child’s Brain Grow Up Strong (NPR):

- “Kids who learn two lan­guages young are bet­ter able to learn abstract rules and to reverse rules that they’ve already learned,” says Aamodt. “They’re less likely to have dif­fi­culty choos­ing between con­flict­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties when there are two pos­si­ble responses that both present them­selves. They’re also bet­ter at fig­ur­ing out what other peo­ple are think­ing, which is prob­a­bly because they have to fig­ure out which lan­guage to use every time they talk to Read the rest of this entry »

Working memory: a better predictor of academic success than IQ?

Work­ing mem­ory is the abil­ity to hold infor­ma­tion in your head and

via Flickr (Plasticinaa)

Pic: Flickr (Plasticinaa)

manip­u­late it men­tally. You use this men­tal work­space when adding up two num­bers spo­ken to you by some­one else with­out being able to use pen and paper or a cal­cu­la­tor. Chil­dren at school need this mem­ory on a daily basis for a vari­ety of tasks such as fol­low­ing teach­ers’ instruc­tions or remem­ber­ing sen­tences they have been asked to write down.

The main goal of our recent paper pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Child Psy­chol­ogy was to inves­ti­gate the pre­dic­tive power of work­ing mem­ory and IQ in learn­ing in typ­i­cally devel­op­ing chil­dren over a six-year period. This issue is impor­tant because dis­tin­guish­ing between the cog­ni­tive skills under­pin­ning suc­cess in learn­ing is cru­cial for early screen­ing and intervention.

In this study, typ­i­cally devel­op­ing stu­dents were tested for their IQ and work­ing mem­ory at 5 years old and again when they were 11 years old. They were also tested on their aca­d­e­mic attain­ments in read­ing, spelling and maths.

Find­ings and Edu­ca­tional Implications

The find­ings revealed that a child’s suc­cess in all aspects of learn­ing is down to how good their work­ing mem­ory is regard­less of IQ score. Crit­i­cally, work­ing mem­ory at the start of for­mal edu­ca­tion is a more pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of sub­se­quent aca­d­e­mic suc­cess than IQ in the early years.

This unique find­ing is impor­tant as it addresses Read the rest of this entry »

Changing our Minds…by Reading Fiction

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

Chang­ing our Minds

By imag­in­ing many pos­si­ble worlds, argues nov­el­ist and psy­chol­o­gist Keith Oat­ley, fic­tion helps us under­stand our­selves and others.

–By Keith Oatley

For more than two thou­sand years peo­ple have insisted that read­ing fic­tion is good for bookyou. Aris­to­tle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles, and Euripi­des, which we would now call fiction—is a more seri­ous busi­ness than his­tory. His­tory, he argued, tells us only what has hap­pened, whereas fic­tion tells us what can hap­pen, which can stretch our moral imag­i­na­tions and give us insights into our­selves and other peo­ple. This is a strong argu­ment for schools to con­tinue to focus on the lit­er­ary arts, not just his­tory, sci­ence, and social studies.

But is the idea of fic­tion being good for you merely wish­ful think­ing? The mem­bers of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Dji­kic, Ray­mond Mar, and I—have been work­ing on the prob­lem. We have turned the idea into ques­tions. In what ways might read­ing fic­tion be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psy­cho­log­i­cal func­tion of art generally?

Through a series of stud­ies, we have dis­cov­ered that fic­tion at its best isn’t just enjoy­able. It mea­sur­ably enhances our abil­i­ties to empathize with other peo­ple and con­nect with some­thing larger than ourselves.

Pos­si­ble selves, pos­si­ble worlds

Peo­ple often think that a fic­tion is some­thing untrue, but this is wrong. The word derives from the Latin fin­gere, to make. As some­thing made, fic­tion is dif­fer­ent from some­thing dis­cov­ered, as in physics, or from some­thing that hap­pened, as in the news. But this does not mean it is false. Fic­tion is about pos­si­ble selves in pos­si­ble worlds.

In terms of 21st-century psy­chol­ogy, we might best see fic­tion as a kind of sim­u­la­tion: one that runs not on com­put­ers, but on minds. Such men­tal sim­u­la­tion unfolds on two levels.

The first level involves sim­u­lat­ing the minds of other peo­ple: imag­in­ing what they are think­ing and feel­ing, which devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists call “the­ory of mind.” The theory-of-mind sim­u­la­tion is like a watch, which is a small model that sim­u­lates Read the rest of this entry »

Education AND Lifelong Cognitive Activities build Cognitive Reserve and Delay Memory Loss

In a recently pub­lished sci­en­tific study (see Hall C, et al “Cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties delay onset of mem­ory decline in per­sons who develop demen­tia” Neu­rol­ogy 2009; 73: 356–361), Hall and col­leagues exam­ined how edu­ca­tion and stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties may inter­act to con­tribute to cog­ni­tive reserve. The study involved 488 ini­tially healthy peo­ple, aver­age age 79, who brain teasers job interviewenrolled in the Bronx Aging Study between 1980 and 1983. These indi­vid­u­als were fol­lowed for 5 years with assess­ments every 12 to 18 months (start­ing in 1980). At the start of the study, all par­tic­i­pants were asked how many cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties (read­ing, writ­ing, cross­word puz­zles, board or card games, group dis­cus­sions, or play­ing music) they par­tic­i­pated in and for how many days a week. Researchers were able to eval­u­ate the impact of self-reported par­tic­i­pa­tion these activ­i­ties on the onset of accel­er­ated mem­ory decline in 101 indi­vid­u­als who devel­oped demen­tia dur­ing the study.

Results showed that for every “activ­ity day” (par­tic­i­pa­tion in one activ­ity for one day a week) the sub­jects engaged in, they delayed for about two months the onset of rapid mem­ory loss asso­ci­ated with demen­tia. Inter­est­ingly, the pos­i­tive effect of brain-stimulating activ­i­ties in this study appeared to be inde­pen­dent of a person’s level of education.

This is great news as it sug­gests that it is never too late to try to build up brain reserve. The more brain stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties one does and the more often, the bet­ter for a stronger cog­ni­tive reserve.

The cog­ni­tive reserve hypoth­e­sis sug­gests that indi­vid­u­als with more cog­ni­tive reserve can expe­ri­ence more Alzheimer’s dis­ease pathol­ogy in the brain (more plaques and tan­gles) with­out devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease symptoms.

How does that work? Sci­en­tists are not sure but two pos­si­bil­i­ties are con­sid­ered.
1. One is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more brain reserve, that is more neu­rons and con­nec­tions between neu­rons.
2. Another pos­si­bil­ity is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more com­pen­satory processes (see my pre­vi­ous post “Edu­ca­tion builds Cog­ni­tive Reserve for Alzheimers Dis­ease Pro­tec­tion” for more details.)

Now, one may won­der about the dif­fer­ence types of men­tal stim­u­la­tion avail­able, includ­ing not only puz­zles and such, but struc­tured activ­i­ties such as brain fit­ness soft­ware and med­i­ta­tion. Do we exer­cise our brain every time we think about some­thing? What can one do to exer­cise one’s brain in ways that enhance capac­ity? Does aer­o­bic fit­ness train­ing also exer­cise one’s brain? What types of method­olo­gies and prod­ucts are avail­able? Do they “work”? Are all the same?

Those are the types of ques­tions we wanted to address in the book The Sharp­Brains Guide To Brain Fit­ness (avail­able via We are proud of the recog­ni­tion the book has started to obtain, includ­ing endorse­ments by lead­ing scientists:

The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness is the only book that I know of that seam­lessly inte­grates lat­est infor­ma­tion about cog­ni­tive health across the lifes­pan, with inter­views with active researchers exam­in­ing cog­ni­tive main­te­nance and enhance­ment, along with reviews of com­mer­cial prod­ucts tar­geted to cog­ni­tive enhance­ment. The book should be very use­ful to any­one inter­ested in brain care, both health care pro­fes­sion­als and the pub­lic at large”.
— Arthur Kramer, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity of Illinois

This Sharp­Brains book pro­vides a very valu­able ser­vice to a wide com­mu­nity inter­ested in learn­ing and brain top­ics. I found it inter­est­ing and help­ful“
- Michael Pos­ner, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon, and first recip­i­ent of the Dogan Prize

Pascale MichelonPas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., is Sharp­Brains’ Research Man­ager for Edu­ca­tional Projects. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­ogy Depart­ment. She con­ducted sev­eral research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visual infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ulty at Wash­ing­ton University.


- Study: Hall C, et al “Cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties delay onset of mem­ory decline in per­sons who develop demen­tia” Neu­rol­ogy 2009; 73: 356–361

- Book: The Sharp­Brains Guide To Brain Fit­ness: 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp

8 Tips To Remember What You Read

Horizontal Stacked BooksDespite tele­vi­sion, cell phones, and Twit­ter, tra­di­tional read­ing is still an impor­tant skill. Whether it is school text­books, mag­a­zines, or reg­u­lar books, peo­ple still read, though not as much as they used to. One rea­son that many peo­ple don’t read much is that they don’t read well. For them, it is slow, hard work and they don’t remem­ber as much as they should. Stu­dents, for example,may have to read some­thing sev­eral times before they under­stand and remem­ber what they read.

Why? You would think that schools teach kids how to read well. Schools do try. I work with middle-school teach­ers and they tell me that many stu­dents are 2–3 years behind grade level in read­ing pro­fi­ciency. No doubt, tele­vi­sion, cell phones, and the Web are major con­trib­u­tors to this prob­lem, which will appar­ently get worse if we don’t empha­size and improve read­ing instruction.

Some of the blame can be placed on the fads in read­ing teach­ing, such as phon­ics and “whole lan­guage,” which some­times are pro­moted by zealots who don’t respect the need for both approaches. Much of the blame for poor read­ing skills can be laid at the feet of par­ents who set poor exam­ples and, of course, on the young­sters who are too lazy to learn how to read well.

For all those who missed out on good read­ing skills, it is not too late. I sum­ma­rize below what I think it takes to read with good speed and comprehension.

  1. Read with a purpose.
  2. Skim first.
  3. Get the read­ing mechan­ics right.
  4. Be judi­cious in high­light­ing and note taking.
  5. Think in pictures.
  6. Rehearse as you go along.
  7. Stay within your atten­tion span and work to increase that span.
  8. Rehearse again soon.

1) Know Your Purpose

Every­one should have a pur­pose for their read­ing and think about how that pur­pose is being ful­filled dur­ing the actual read­ing. The advan­tage for remem­ber­ing is that check­ing con­tin­u­ously for how the pur­pose is being ful­filled helps the reader to stay on task, to focus on the more rel­e­vant parts of the text, and to rehearse con­tin­u­ously as one reads. This also saves time and effort because rel­e­vant items are most attended.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the pur­pose should be easy if you freely choose what to read. Just ask your­self, “Why am I read­ing this?” If it is to be enter­tained or pass the time, then there is not much prob­lem. But myr­iad other rea­sons could apply, such as:

  • to under­stand a cer­tain group of peo­ple, such as Mus­lims, Jews, Hin­dus, etc.
  • to crys­tal­lize your polit­i­cal posi­tion, such as why a given gov­ern­ment pol­icy should be opposed.
  • to develop an informed plan or proposal.
  • to sat­isfy a require­ment of an aca­d­e­mic course or other assigned reading.

Many of us have read­ings assigned to us, as in a school envi­ron­ment. Or the boss may hand us a man­ual and say Read the rest of this entry »

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