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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Workouts at the (New Yorker) brain gym

NewYorkerGood arti­cle on brain fit­ness and applied neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty in the July 29th edi­tion of The New York­er, fea­tur­ing many Sharp­Brains friends. Men­tal­ly fit — Work­outs at the brain gym:

As recent­ly as a few decades ago, most biol­o­gists thought that the brain was ful­ly formed dur­ing child­hood and, like a pho­to­graph after it’s been devel­oped, was doomed to degrade there­after, with neu­rons (nerve cells) fad­ing like pig­ment on paper until you suc­cumbed to senil­i­ty. Today, we regard Alzheimer’s and oth­er demen­tias as dis­eases, rather than as a con­se­quence of nor­mal aging. More­over, we now con­sid­er the brain to be as labile as a dig­i­tal image in the hands of a Pho­to­shop fiend…Not only does the brain have a life­long abil­i­ty to cre­ate new neu­rons; like a gov­ern­ment with an unlim­it­ed high­way bud­get, it has an end­less capac­i­ty to build new roadways…The abil­i­ty of the brain to estab­lish new con­nec­tions is called plas­tic­i­ty, and brain-fit­ness exer­cis­es are pred­i­cat­ed on this mechanism…That’s enough sci­ence for now. Let’s get back to me. . . .”

(Some) New Yorker articles are bogus

Scarecrow-or-strawmanI love read­ing the New York­er. I have writ­ten before about bogus brain games, and about bogus brain train­ing claims. We have pub­lished a 10-ques­tion check­list to help con­sumers make informed deci­sions.

All this is to say I was sur­prised to read a recent New York­er blog arti­cle titled “Brain games are bogus.” If you are going to make such strong claims, you need to back them up with seri­ous due dili­gence and analy­sis, and explain to read­ers what Read the rest of this entry »

Changing our Minds…by Reading Fiction

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

Chang­ing our Minds

By imag­in­ing many pos­si­ble worlds, argues nov­el­ist and psy­chol­o­gist Kei­th Oat­ley, fic­tion helps us under­stand our­selves and oth­ers.

-By Kei­th Oat­ley

For more than two thou­sand years peo­ple have insist­ed that read­ing fic­tion is good for bookyou. Aris­to­tle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles, and Euripi­des, which we would now call fiction—is a more seri­ous busi­ness than his­to­ry. His­to­ry, he argued, tells us only what has hap­pened, where­as fic­tion tells us what can hap­pen, which can stretch our moral imag­i­na­tions and give us insights into our­selves and oth­er peo­ple. This is a strong argu­ment for schools to con­tin­ue to focus on the lit­er­ary arts, not just his­to­ry, sci­ence, and social stud­ies.

But is the idea of fic­tion being good for you mere­ly wish­ful think­ing? The mem­bers of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Dji­kic, Ray­mond Mar, and I—have been work­ing on the prob­lem. We have turned the idea into ques­tions. In what ways might read­ing fic­tion be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psy­cho­log­i­cal func­tion of art gen­er­al­ly?

Through a series of stud­ies, we have dis­cov­ered that fic­tion at its best isn’t just enjoy­able. It mea­sur­ably enhances our abil­i­ties to empathize with oth­er peo­ple and con­nect with some­thing larg­er than our­selves.

Pos­si­ble selves, pos­si­ble worlds

Peo­ple often think that a fic­tion is some­thing untrue, but this is wrong. The word derives from the Latin fin­gere, to make. As some­thing made, fic­tion is dif­fer­ent from some­thing dis­cov­ered, as in physics, or from some­thing that hap­pened, as in the news. But this does not mean it is false. Fic­tion is about pos­si­ble selves in pos­si­ble worlds.

In terms of 21st-cen­tu­ry psy­chol­o­gy, we might best see fic­tion as a kind of sim­u­la­tion: one that runs not on com­put­ers, but on minds. Such men­tal sim­u­la­tion unfolds on two lev­els.

The first lev­el involves sim­u­lat­ing the minds of oth­er peo­ple: imag­in­ing what they are think­ing and feel­ing, which devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists call “the­o­ry of mind.” The the­o­ry-of-mind sim­u­la­tion is like a watch, which is a small mod­el that sim­u­lates Read the rest of this entry »

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