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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