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Why social engagement can boost brain function: the case for “walking book clubs”

alYou may remem­ber the answer of Dr. Art Kramer in Chap­ter 2 when asked about the top key lifestyle habits that help delay Alzheimer’s symp­toms and improve over­all brain health:   “Ide­al­ly, com­bine both phys­i­cal and men­tal stim­u­la­tion along with social inter­ac­tions. Why not take a good walk with friends to dis­cuss a book?”

This is why you will find below a few ques­tions to help you delve deep­er into the top­ics dis­cussed in The Sharp­Brains Guide. We sug­gest that you dis­cuss these ques­tions with your friends, loved ones, the mem­bers of your book club, at a meet­ing of fel­low pro­fes­sion­als, etc.

Think­ing about the ques­tions by your­self would be a stim­u­lat­ing intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise but dis­cussing the ques­tions with a group of peo­ple would boost the pow­er of this brain exer­cise. Indeed, recent find­ings sug­gest that social con­tact may help us improve our brain func­tions. For instance, in 2008, Ybar­ra and his col­leagues ran­dom­ly assigned par­tic­i­pants (aged 18–21) to three groups: 1) a social group, in which the par­tic­i­pants engaged in a dis­cus­sion of a social issue for 10mn, 2) an intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ties group, in which the par­tic­i­pants solved stim­u­lat­ing tasks (cross­word puz­zles and the likes) for 10mn, and 3) a con­trol group, in which the par­tic­i­pants watched a 10mn clip of Sein­feld. After they par­tic­i­pat­ed in the dis­cus­sion or watched the clip or solved the puz­zles, the cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing of all the par­tic­i­pants was assessed. Two tasks were used (a speed of pro­cess­ing task and a work­ing mem­o­ry task).

Results of Ybarra’s study showed that peo­ple in the intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ties group did bet­ter in the cog­ni­tive tasks than peo­ple who mere­ly watched a movie. This sug­gests that stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties are good for your brain. The ben­e­fit from social inter­ac­tion was as great as the ben­e­fit from intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ties! This is a very excit­ing result con­sid­er­ing that par­tic­i­pants engaged in dis­cus­sion for only 10 min­utes.

Why would social inter­ac­tion boost brain func­tion? Ybar­ra and col­leagues offer the fol­low­ing rea­son­ing. Social inter­ac­tion involves many behav­iors that require mem­o­ry, atten­tion and control.  These men­tal process­es are also involved in many cog­ni­tive tasks.  Thus social inter­ac­tion would act as a prime, it would “oil” these process­es so that they are ready to be used when a cog­ni­tive task is to be solved. This is a ten­ta­tive expla­na­tion that may require some refine­ment but the results are here: Social inter­ac­tion seems to ben­e­fit the brain.

By writ­ing this guide, we have done our best to con­tribute to your good brain health and cog­ni­tive fit­ness. Now it is your turn.

Keep learn­ing by read­ing more arti­cles in the Resources sec­tion, and also please con­sid­er join­ing our free month­ly Brain Fit­ness eNewslet­ter

This new online resource is based on the con­tent from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg.

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