Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Information Overload? Seven Learning and Productivity Tips

We often talk in this blog about how to expand fun­da­men­tal abil­i­ties or cog­ni­tive func­tions, like atten­tion, or mem­o­ry, or emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion. Think of them as mus­cles one can train. Now, it is also impor­tant to think of ways one can use our exist­ing mus­cles more effi­cient­ly.

Let’s talk about how to man­age bet­ter the over­whelm­ing amount of infor­ma­tion avail­able these days.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of new books, ana­lyst reports, sci­en­tif­ic papers pub­lished every year. Mil­lions of web­sites at our googletips. The flow of data, infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge is grow­ing expo­nen­tial­ly, stretch­ing the capac­i­ty of our not-so-evolved brains. We can com­plain all day that we can­not process ALL this flow. Now, let me ask, should we even try?

Prob­a­bly not. Why engage in a los­ing propo­si­tion. Instead, let me offer a few strate­gies that can help man­age this flow of infor­ma­tion bet­ter.

1. Pri­or­i­tize: strate­gic con­sult­ing firms such as McK­in­sey and BCG train their staff in the so-called 80/20 rule: 80% of effects are caused by the top 20% of caus­es. In a com­pa­ny, 80% sales may come from 20% of the accounts. Impli­ca­tion: focus on that top 20%; don’t spend too much time on the 80% that only account for 20%.

2. Lever­age a sci­en­tif­ic mind­set. Sci­en­tists shift through tons of data in effi­cient, goal-ori­ent­ed ways. How do they do it? By first stat­ing a hypoth­e­sis and then look­ing for data. For exam­ple, an untrained per­son could spend weeks “boil­ing the ocean”, try­ing to read as much as pos­si­ble, in a very frag­men­tary way, about how phys­i­cal exer­cise affects our brain. A trained sci­en­tist would first define clear hypothe­ses and pre­lim­i­nary assump­tions, such as “Phys­i­cal exer­cise can enhance the brain’s abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate new neu­rons” or “Those new neu­rons appear in the hip­pocam­pus”, and then look specif­i­cal­ly for data that cor­rob­o­rates or refutes those sen­tences, enabling him or her to refine the hypothe­ses fur­ther, based on accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge, in a vir­tu­ous learn­ing cycle.

3. Beat your ene­mies-like exces­sive TV watch­ing. Watch­ing TV five hours a day has an effect on your brain: it trains one’s brain to become a visu­al, usu­al­ly unre­flec­tive, pas­sive recip­i­ent of infor­ma­tion. You may have heard the expres­sion “Cells that fire togeth­er wire togeth­er”. Our brains are com­posed of bil­lions of neu­rons, each of which can have thou­sand of con­nec­tions to oth­er neu­rons. Any thing we do in life is going to acti­vate a spe­cif­ic net­works of neu­rons. Visu­al­ize a mil­lion neu­rons fir­ing at the same time when you watch a TV pro­gram. Now, the more TV you watch, the more those neu­rons will fire togeth­er, and there­fore the more they will wire togeth­er (mean­ing that the con­nec­tions between them become, phys­i­cal­ly, stronger), which then cre­ates auto­mat­ic-like reac­tions. A heavy TV-watch­er is mak­ing him­self or her­self more pas­sive, unre­flec­tive, per­son. Exact­ly the oppo­site of what one needs to apply the oth­er tips described here. Con­tin­ue Read­ing

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Giv­en the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­a­go Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regard­ed “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­o­my, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­el­ty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, togeth­er with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress man­age­ment.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­i­an Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­o­ry has a max­i­mum lim­it of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic process­es can not be reor­ga­nized by repeat­ed prac­tice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tion­al man­age­ment, mem­o­ry, visual/ spa­tial, audi­to­ry process­es and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and prob­lem-solv­ing.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chron­ic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vat­ed due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essen­tial.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry is Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­i­ty of trained med­i­ta­tors to devel­op and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tive­ly with pow­er­ful emo­tion­al states and stress through the direct­ed men­tal process­es of med­i­ta­tion prac­tices.

And now, some key­words:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cis­es, usu­al­ly com­put­er-based, designed to train spe­cif­ic brain areas and process­es in tar­get­ed ways.

Chron­ic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and Read the rest of this entry »

Exercise Your Brain! Enjoy Learning!

Dr. Michael Merzenich has writ­ten a great post titled “cog­ni­tive reserve is a good thing to work on!. Rec­om­mend­ed read­ing if you are inter­est­ed in anoth­er sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive for cog­ni­tive train­ing.

I agree we should know more (as usu­al), espe­cial­ly for pol­i­cy deci­sions, but there is enough research, from Mar­i­an Dia­mond et al (see beau­ti­ful essays below) work on enriched envi­ron­ments to cog­ni­tive reserve and train­ing, that is shout­ing at all of us: Exer­cise Your Brain! Enjoy Learn­ing! Sta­tis­tics such as that the aver­age Amer­i­can-includ­ing kids- watch 5 hours of TV dai­ly… don’t mean “we need more research” but “how can we change this”?.

See a cou­ple of quotes from my recent inter­view with Yaakov Stern on the Cog­ni­tive Reserve.

  • well…I was pret­ty sur­prised when, years ago, a reporter from Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine request­ed an inter­view. I was real­ly curi­ous to learn why Read the rest of this entry »

Build Your Cognitive Reserve: An Interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern

Yaakov SternDr. Yaakov Stern is the Divi­sion Leader of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Divi­sion of the Sergievsky Cen­ter, and Pro­fes­sor of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy, at the Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, New York. Alvaro Fer­nan­dez inter­views him here as part of our research for The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness book.

Dr. Stern is one of the lead­ing pro­po­nents of the Cog­ni­tive reserve the­o­ry, which aims to explain why some indi­vid­u­als with full Alzheimer’s pathol­o­gy (accu­mu­la­tion of plaques and tan­gles in their brains) can keep nor­mal lives until they die, while oth­ers -with the same amount of plaques and tan­gles- dis­play the severe symp­toms we asso­ciate with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. He has pub­lished dozens of peer-reviewed sci­en­tif­ic papers on the sub­ject.

The con­cept of a Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analy­sis of 137 peo­ple with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease showed that some patients exhib­it­ed few­er clin­i­cal symp­toms than their actu­al pathol­o­gy sug­gest­ed. These patients also showed high­er brain weights and greater num­ber of neu­rons when com­pared to age-matched con­trols. The inves­ti­ga­tors hypoth­e­sized that the patients had a larg­er “reserve” of neu­rons and abil­i­ties that enable them to off­set the loss­es caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then, the con­cept of Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been defined as the abil­i­ty of an indi­vid­ual to tol­er­ate pro­gres­sive brain pathol­o­gy with­out demon­strat­ing clin­i­cal cog­ni­tive symp­toms. (You can check at the end of this inter­view a great clip on this).

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Key take-aways

- Life­time expe­ri­ences, like edu­ca­tion, engag­ing occu­pa­tion, and leisure activ­i­ties, have been shown to have a major influ­ence on how we age, specif­i­cal­ly on whether we will devel­op Alzheimer’s symp­toms or not.

- This is so because stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties, ide­al­ly com­bin­ing phys­i­cal exer­cise, learn­ing and social inter­ac­tion, help us build a Cog­ni­tive Reserve to pro­tect us.

- The ear­li­er we start build­ing our Reserve, the bet­ter; but it is nev­er too late to start. And, the more activ­i­ties, the bet­ter: the effect is cumu­la­tive.

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The Cog­ni­tive Reserve

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Dear Dr. Stern, it is a plea­sure to have you here. Let me first ask you this: the impli­ca­tions of your research are pret­ty broad, pre­sent­ing major impli­ca­tions across sec­tors and age groups. What has been the most unex­pect­ed reac­tion so far?

YS: well…I was pret­ty sur­prised when Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health and Fitness Workshops

Today I have an announce­ment to make. You prob­a­bly are seeing all the arti­cles about Brain Fit­ness in the press and wondering, “What is this all about?”, “Can some­one help me nav­i­gate through all the pro­grams out there?”, “How is Brain Fit­ness rel­e­vant to me in my per­son­al life or at work?”. Well…we are deliv­er­ing a series of work­shops to com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions com­bin­ing mod­ules -includ­ing sci­en­tif­ic overview, the indus­try trends and key play­ers, fun team-build­ing exer­cis­es- that can be tai­lored to each organization’s spe­cif­ic needs. Ses­sions last from 1 to 6 hours, depend­ing on the group’s com­po­si­tion and agen­da and are deliv­ered either in per­son or via web con­fer­ence.

We want to be able to reach more orga­ni­za­tions, so please let us know of any ideas!

Some recent examples

1. Man­ag­ing Stress for Peak Per­for­mance (we men­tioned some notes on an Accen­ture ses­sion)

New and chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions – such as tak­ing on new respon­si­bil­i­ties– can trig­ger reac­tions in our brain and body that lim­it or even block our deci­sion-mak­ing abil­i­ties. These reac­tions may also harm our long-term brain pow­er and health. Although we can­not avoid change and stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, we can learn how to man­age our stress lev­els to ensure peak per­for­mance-even in tough moments. The lat­est neu­ro­science research proves that stress man­age­ment is a train­able “men­tal mus­cle.” This is true for any high pres­sure pro­fes­sion, be it trad­ing, sports, or sim­ply mod­ern life.

2. The Sci­ence of Brain Health and Brain Fit­ness (sim­i­lar to what I will teach at UC Berke­ley OLLI)

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown how the human brain retains neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty to rewire itself) and neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons) dur­ing its full life­time, lead­ing to a new under­stand­ing of Read the rest of this entry »

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