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

Mind & Life Institute

My wife and I were for­tu­nate to con­duct recent­ly a mind train­ing exper­i­ment, in the form of a breath­ing & med­i­ta­tion retreat, with some neu­ro­sci­en­tists and Adam Engle, Co-Founder and Chair­man of the Mind & Life Insti­tute (nice name, isn’t it?)

The Mind and Life Dia­logues “start­ed in 1987 as an exper­i­ment to deter­mine whether a sci­en­tif­ic exchange could occur between mod­ern sci­ence and Bud­dhism. MLI has now spon­sored 14 dia­logues (between the Dalai Lama and neu­ro­sci­en­tists) over the last 20 years. In that time MLI has become a rec­og­nized world leader in the emerg­ing sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion of the effects of con­tem­pla­tive prac­tices on the brain, behav­ior, and the trans­la­tion of this data into effec­tive tools to ben­e­fit all peo­ple every­where.”

A few notes from our con­ver­sa­tion with Adam

  • - He helped launch the Mind & Life Insti­tute to build a sci­ence-based field of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary study to inves­ti­gate the appli­ca­tions of the “data­base of prac­tices” that Bud­dhism and some Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions have accu­mu­lat­ed over milen­nia
  • - From ear­ly on it became clear that they need­ed to engage West­ern neu­ro­sci­en­tists in order to be cred­i­ble and become a real East-West bridge with poten­tial to reach main­stream soci­ety. You can see below a par­tial list of par­tic­i­pants in their most recent meet­ing, 2 weeks ago
  • - They are very hap­py that Sharon Begley’s book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain has become a non-fic­tion Best­seller, since it is based on one of the Mind & Life Dia­logues (more on Books on neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty)
  • - He is glad to see the inroads that Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) is mak­ing in the med­ical world thanks to sol­id research. He believes the Cor­po­rate Train­ing and Lead­er­ship mar­ket is also going to become very inter­est­ed in this tech­nique for stress man­age­ment. The main bot­tle­neck for growth? the exist­ing num­ber of qual­i­fied instruc­tors does not meet the increas­ing demand.

The Insti­tute spon­sors research in a num­ber of ways, and they just announced that the 3rd annu­al Sci­en­tists Retreat will take place Read the rest of this entry »

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: the brain’s abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life. (see more con­cepts in our Glos­sary).

We coudn’t be hap­pi­er about the grow­ing num­ber of books pop­u­lar­iz­ing the key lessons about brain train­ing that Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg has been research­ing and writ­ing about for years, and that moti­vat­ed us to embark our­selves in the Sharp­Brains adven­ture.

Dis­cov­er Mag­a­zine presents a great arti­cle, Rewiring the Brain, review­ing two recent books.

  • The sub­ti­tle is “Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty can allow for treat­ment of senil­i­ty, post-trau­mat­ic stress, ­obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der, and depres­sion and Bud­dhists have been cap­i­tal­iz­ing on it for mil­lenia.” I would add that the strong val­ue of life­long learn­ing present in jesuit and jew­ish tra­di­tions reflects the same wis­dom. Some quotes:
  • Two new books, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Bal­lan­tine Books, $24.95) by sci­ence jour­nal­ist Sharon Beg­ley and The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, $24.95) by psy­chi­a­trist Nor­man Doidge, offer mas­ter­ful­ly guid­ed tours through the bur­geon­ing field of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty research. Each has its own style and empha­sis; both are excel­lent.”
  • Final­ly, both authors con­clude that adult neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is a vast­ly under­tapped resource, one with which West­ern med­i­cine and psy­chol­o­gy are just now com­ing to grips. An impor­tant emerg­ing research agen­da is to Read the rest of this entry »

I am busy executive with a challenging job. How is brain fitness relevant to me?

Here is ques­tion 21 from Brain Fit­ness 101: Answers to Your Top 25 Ques­tions.

Question:

I am busy exec­u­tive with a chal­leng­ing job. How is brain fit­ness rel­e­vant to me?

Key Points:
  • Reduce your stress to improve con­cen­tra­tion and learn­ing readi­ness and reduce dis­trac­tions.
  • Increase your men­tal stim­u­la­tion to help main­tain a healthy, flex­i­ble brain.
Answer:

Exec­u­tives, or any­one involved in com­plex and rapid­ly evolv­ing envi­ron­ments, need to make pres­sured deci­sions based on sound log­ic, instead of emo­tion­al impuls­es. It is not easy to deal with the frus­tra­tion, for exam­ple, when Read the rest of this entry »

Baby Boomers, Healthy Aging and Job Performance

There has been an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion about the issues relat­ed to the aging of the legal pro­fes­sion. Stephanie intro­duced us to the arti­cle “the Gray­ing Bar: let’s not for­get the ethics” by David Giacalone.

In short: sta­tis­tics about the increas­ing ratio of lawyers over 70 in active prac­tice, on the one hand, and the gen­er­al inci­dence of Alzheimer’s and oth­er demen­tias, on the oth­er, lead David to point out an increas­ing like­li­hood that some lawyers may be prac­tic­ing in less than ide­al con­di­tions for their clients, beyond a rea­son­able “brain age”. The ques­tion then becomes: who and how can solve this prob­lem, which is only going to grow giv­en demo­graph­ic trends?.

We are not legal experts, but would like to inform the debate by offer­ing 10 con­sid­er­a­tions on healthy aging and job per­for­mance from a neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal point of view, that apply to all occu­pa­tions:

1- We should talk more about change than about decline, as Sharon Beg­ley wrote recent­ly in her great arti­cle on The Upside of Aging — WSJ.com (sub­scrip­tion required).

We dis­cussed some of these effects with Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, who wrote his great book The Wis­dom Para­dox pre­cise­ly on this point, at The Exec­u­tive Brain and How our Minds Can Grow Stronger.

2- Some skills improve as we age: In our “Exer­cis­ing Our Brains” Class­es, we typ­i­cal­ly explain how some areas typ­i­cal­ly improve as we age, such as self-reg­u­la­tion, emo­tion­al func­tion­ing and Wis­dom (which means mov­ing from Prob­lem solv­ing to Pat­tern recog­ni­tion). As a lawyer accu­mu­lates more cas­es under his/ her belt, he or she devel­ops an auto­mat­ic “intu­ition” for solu­tions and strate­gies. As long as the envi­ron­ment doesn’t change too rapid­ly, this grow­ing wis­dom is very valu­able.

3- …where­as, yes, oth­ers typ­i­cal­ly decline: Read the rest of this entry »

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