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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