Jogging our Brains for Brain Vitality, Healthy Aging-and Intelligence!

Stroop Test

Quick: say the col­or in which each word in this graph­ic is dis­played (don’t just read the word!):

Here you have a round-up of some great recent arti­cles on mem­o­ry, aging, and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties such as self-control:

1) How to Boost Your Willpow­er (New York Times).

- “The video watch­ers were lat­er giv­en a con­cen­tra­tion test in which they were asked to iden­ti­fy the col­or in which words were dis­played. (Note: now you see why we start­ed with that brain exer­cise…) The word  for instance, might appear in blue ink. The video watch­ers who had sti­fled their respons­es did the worst on the test, sug­gest­ing that their self-con­trol had already been deplet­ed by the film challenge.”

- “Final­ly, some research sug­gests that peo­ple strug­gling with self-con­trol should start small. A few stud­ies show that peo­ple who were instruct­ed for two weeks to make small changes like improv­ing their pos­ture or brush­ing their teeth with their oppo­site hand improved their scores on lab­o­ra­to­ry tests of self-con­trol. The data aren’t con­clu­sive, but they do sug­gest that the quest for self-improve­ment should start small. A vow to stop swear­ing, to make the bed every day or to give up just one food may be a way to strength­en your self-con­trol, giv­ing you more willpow­er reserves for big­ger chal­lenges later.”

Com­ment: learn­ing, build­ing abil­i­ties, are process­es that require prac­tice and grow­ing lev­els of dif­fi­cul­ty. Like train­ing our mus­cles in the gym. So the advice to start small and pro­gres­sive­ly do more makes sense. Many times the ene­my of learn­ing is the stress and anx­i­ety we pro­voke by try­ing to do too many things at the same time…

2) Jog­ging Your Mem­o­ry (Newsweek) Thanks Chris for alert­ing us!

- “No one should expect mir­a­cles soon, if at all. But the deep­er sci­en­tists peer into the work­ings of mem­o­ry, the bet­ter they under­stand what helps to stave off age-relat­ed declines and the clos­er they come to devis­ing poten­tial drugs to help.”

- “That’s why many sci­en­tists are more inter­est­ed in what we can accom­plish nat­u­ral­ly, with­out drugs. “With a rea­son­able amount of effort, you can improve your mem­o­ry 30 to 40 per­cent,” says Dr. Bar­ry Gor­don, founder of the mem­o­ry clin­ic at Johns Hop­kins. In the past year, research has shed new light in par­tic­u­lar on the ben­e­fits of both men­tal and phys­i­cal activity.”

- “That’s why a pre­sen­ta­tion last month at the Geron­to­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca seemed so intrigu­ing. In a study of 524 healthy adults ages 65 and over, those who worked an hour a day for eight weeks on a com­put­er-based learn­ing pro­gram called Brain Fit­ness 2.0 from Posit Sci­ence showed improve­ments in a vari­ety of unre­lat­ed mem­o­ry tasks. “The gains were equiv­a­lent to turn­ing back the clock 10 years,” says lead inves­ti­ga­tor Eliz­a­beth Zelin­s­ki of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern California.”

Com­ment: we report­ed on the GSA study, have already inter­viewed lead inves­ti­ga­tor Eliz­a­beth Zelin­s­ki, and will be pub­lish­ing it over the next few days so stay tuned. Good news is the well-tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cise can help build abil­i­ties, offer­ing a com­ple­ment to oth­er good lifestyle habits such as phys­i­cal exercise.

3) Men­tal Reserves Keep Brains Agile (New York Times). Thanks Tom for the heads up!

- “Cog­ni­tive reserve, in this the­o­ry, refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to devel­op and main­tain extra neu­rons and con­nec­tions between them via axons and den­drites. Lat­er in life, these con­nec­tions may help com­pen­sate for the rise in demen­tia-relat­ed brain pathol­o­gy that accom­pa­nies nor­mal aging.”

- “Observ­ing this, Dr. Stern, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, and oth­ers set out to deter­mine how peo­ple can devel­op cog­ni­tive reserve. They have learned thus far that there is no “quick fix”  for the aging brain, and lit­tle evi­dence that any one sup­ple­ment or pro­gram or piece of equip­ment can pro­tect or enhance brain func­tion  adver­tise­ments for prod­ucts like gink­go bilo­ba to the contrary.”

- “Nonethe­less, well-designed stud­ies sug­gest sev­er­al ways to improve the brain’s via­bil­i­ty. Though best to start ear­ly to build up cog­ni­tive reserve, there is evi­dence that this account can be replen­ished even late in life.”

- “If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, with­out intro­duc­ing new men­tal chal­lenges, it won’t be ben­e­fi­cial, she said in an inter­view. Thus, as with mus­cles, it’s “use it or lose it.” The brain requires con­tin­ued stress­es to main­tain or enhance its strength.”

Com­ment: you can read our in-depth inter­view with Dr. Yaakov Stern here on how to build our cog­ni­tive reserves. And this arti­cle that sum­ma­rizes much of the recent research on Ten Impor­tant Truths About Aging.

4) I.Q. wars (The New York­er), a superb arti­cle by Mal­colm Gladwell

- “…if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopt­ed or dis­card­ed in a gen­er­a­tion, what, exact­ly, is all the fuss about?”

- “The mind is much more like a mus­cle than we’ve ever real­ized, Fly­nn said. “It needs to get cog­ni­tive exer­cise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indeli­ble mark. The les­son to be drawn from black and white dif­fer­ences was the same as the les­son from the Nether­lands years ago: I.Q. mea­sures not just the qual­i­ty of a per­son­’s mind but the qual­i­ty of the world that per­son lives in.”

- “If I.Q. is innate, it should­n’t make a dif­fer­ence whether it’s a mixed-race child’s moth­er or father who is black. But it does: chil­dren with a white moth­er and a black father have an eight-point I.Q. advan­tage over those with a black moth­er and a white father.”

Com­ment: As we wrote here, genes pre­dis­pose us, but it is the com­bi­na­tion of our envi­ron­ments and our actions that we bet­ter focus on. This last arti­cle sets the stage very well for why intel­li­gence is not a pure­ly genet­ic attribute, and the pre­vi­ous three arti­cles offer very use­ful sug­ges­tions for becom­ing “smarter” and main­tain our men­tal abil­i­ties over time.

What would you add?


  1. ang chuan chooi on December 12, 2007 at 7:54

    rest and activ­i­ty of the brain makes it more agile and improve mem­o­ry pow­er through meditation.

  2. Do you think that exercising on December 13, 2007 at 10:28

    the brain cor­re­sponds with exer­cis­ing the body? I think that is what the arti­cle is imply­ing — because what oth­er pur­pose would brush­ing your teeth with your left hand serve? I think it’s a very inter­est­ing the­o­ry and I would­n’t at all be sur­prised. While I try to do things like watch my pos­ture, I’m not sure how much it con­trols my sense of self-dis­ci­pline. Thanks for the post.

  3. Alvaro on December 14, 2007 at 7:41

    Hel­lo Ang, med­i­ta­tion indeed pro­vides very good men­tal train­ing. There was a good recent arti­cle in the LA Times,1,7691038.story

    To the oth­er com­menter: what is self-dis­ci­pline? the abil­i­ty to self-mon­i­tor our behav­ior and con­cious­ly decide what we want to do despite inter­nal urges to do oth­er­wise. For exam­ple, could you resist the temp­ta­tion to eat a hamburger/ drink a beer…if it is in your hands while you are watch­ing a cool ad for that hamburger/ beer? Brush­ing your teeth with your non-dom­i­nant hand is an exam­ple of an activ­i­ty that exer­cis­es self-dis­ci­pline while you are doing it, and the more you do oth­er exer­cis­es like that in real life the more that abil­i­ty gets inter­nal­ized and wired. 

    Can you try that exer­cise for a cou­ple of weeks and let us know what you find :-)

  4. C.G. Walters on December 24, 2007 at 4:11

    An excel­lent bit of work, Alvaro. Thank you.
    Peace and wonder,

  5. Ken on December 28, 2007 at 6:30

    Do you have pod­casts on the net?

  6. Alvaro on December 28, 2007 at 7:15

    Thanks, C. G.

    Ken, we don’t have a pod­cast now, but are indeed eval­u­at­ing options. It is not clear to us how much of a pri­or­i­ty this is, vs. oth­er projects such as video. Hap­py to hear sug­ges­tions and feedback!

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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