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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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