Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Managing brains, not bodies, in the knowledge economy

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[Photo: Flickr user_DJ_, Brian Snelson via Wikimedia Commons]

This Outdated Approach To Productivity Is Bad For Your Brain (Fast Company):

“Your car has parts that perform specific tasks. The radiator cools the engine. The spark plugs ignite the gas. The intake manifold distributes air and gas evenly to the cylinders. We think of a car this way because a car is a machine.

For most of the 20th century, scientists mapped the brain in the same way Read the rest of this entry »

Navigating The Many Dangers of Experience

As with “expert,” the root of experience is “experiri,” a Latin word meaning “to try out.” People with a lot of experience should be willing to try new things, as their knowledge should provide more context and points of view, enable more exploration of an issue, and minimize risk with decisions. However, highly experienced people tend to fall into the habits of the past. Once we have accumulated a valuable base of knowledge, experience provides a useful shortcut for decision making. Relying on experience is very fast and very efficient, but it is also potentially very dangerous. Operating with the least effort possible, the brain retrieves whatever quickly seems to fit. We apply past patterns to the future. Rather than call upon its amazing creativity, too often the brain works as nothing but a huge storage bin of precedents.

Because “close is good enough” as our brain fills in the blanks, we Read the rest of this entry »

Is There a Formula for Smart Thinking?

One day, one of my kids was staring at a simple circuit diagram. It showed a battery connected to a resistor and a light bulb. He was doing a homework problem. The particular question that had him stumped asked what would happen to the current in the circuit if the resistor was replaced with another that had more resistance. He hadn’t been in class that day and had never studied electricity, and so he stared at the diagram for a few minutes without comprehension.

My son had reached what psychologists call an impasse, which is really just a fancy way of saying that he was stuck. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Brain Health News: Top Articles and Resources in March

There’s such a flood of very significant research studies, educational resources and articles related to brain health, it’s hard to keep track – even for us!

Let me introduce and quote some of the top Brain Health Studies, Articles and Resources published in March:

1) Cognitive Decline Begins In Late 20s, Study Suggests (Science Daily)

– “These patterns suggest that some types of mental flexibility decrease relatively early in adulthood, but that how much knowledge one has, and the effectiveness of integrating it with one’s abilities, may increase throughout all of adulthood if there are no pathological diseases,” Salthouse said.

– However, Salthouse points out that there is a great deal of variance from person to person

2) Cerebrum 2009: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science – new book by the Dana Foundation that “explores the cutting edge of brain research and its implications in our everyday lives, in language understandable to the general reader.”

A couple of excellent chapters of direct relevance to everyone’s brain health are:
– Chapter 4: A Road Paved by Reason, by Elizabeth Norton Lasley

– Chapter 10: Neural Health: Is It Facilitated by Work Force Participation?, by Denise Park, Ph.D

3) Staying Sharp DVD Program: “Dr. Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke outside of Washington, DC, and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, is your guide as we cover what to expect from the aging brain and what we can do to ‘stay sharp.’

For a free DVD of this program you can contact stayingsharp@dana.org. (they say free in their website, I don’t know if that includes shipping & handling)

4) Drivers to be tested on cognitive ability starting at age 75 (Japan Times)

The outline of a cognitive test that drivers aged 75 or over will be required to take from June when renewing their licenses was released Thursday…The test is intended to reduce the number of traffic accidents involving elderly drivers by measuring their cognitive level.

5) Physical Fitness Improves Spatial Memory, Increases Size Of Brain Structure (Science Daily)

– “Now researchers have found that elderly adults who are more physically fit tend to have bigger hippocampi and better spatial memory than those who are less fit.”

6) Brain Trainers: A Workout for the Mind (Scientific American Mind)

“I recently tried out eight of the latest brain fitness programs, training with each for a week. The programs ranged widely in focus, quality and how fun they were to use. “Like physical exercise equipment, a brain exercise program doesn’t do you any good if you don’t use it, says Andrew J. Carle, director of the Program in Assisted Living/Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University. And people tend not to use boring equipment. “I remember when NordicTrack was the biggest thing out there. Everyone ran out and bought one, and 90 percent of them ended up as a clothes rack in the back of your bedroom.

The reporter used: Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program Classic, HappyNeuron, Nintendo BrainAge, CogniFit’s MindFit/ CogniFit Personal Coach, Lumosity, MyBrainTrainer, BrainTwister, Cogmed Working Memory Training.

7) The Latest in Mental Health: Working Out at the ‘Brain Gym’ (Wall Street Journal)

– “Marshall Kahn, an 82-year-old family doctor in Fullerton, Calif., says he got such a boost from brain exercises he started doing at a “Nifty after Fifty” club that he decided to start seeing patients again part-time. “Doing all the mental exercise,” he says, “I realized I’ve still got it.”

8) Debate Over Drugs For ADHD Reignites (Washington Post)

– “New data from a large federal study have reignited a debate over the effectiveness of long-term drug treatment of children with hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder, and have drawn accusations that some members of the research team have sought to play down evidence that medications do little good beyond 24 months.”

– “The study also indicated that long-term use of the drugs can stunt children’s growth.”

8) Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children (Developmental Science)

Abstract: Working memory plays a crucial role in supporting learning, with poor progress in reading and mathematics characterizing children with low memory skills. This study investigated whether these problems can be overcome by a training program designed to boost working memory. Children with low working memory skills were assessed on measures of working memory, IQ and academic attainment before and after training on either adaptive or non-adaptive versions of the program. Adaptive training that taxed working memory to its limits was associated with substantial and sustained gains in working memory, with age-appropriate levels achieved by the majority of children. Mathematical ability also improved significantly 6 months following adaptive training. These findings indicate that common impairments in working memory and associated learning difficulties may be overcome with this behavioral treatment.

9) Brain cortex thinning linked to inherited depression (Los Angeles Times)

– “On average, people with a family history of depression appear to have brains that are 28% thinner in the right cortex — the outermost layer of the brain — than those with no known family history of the disease. That cortical thinning, said the researchers, is on a scale similar to that seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia.”

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