You will often hear that staying “mentally active” is important for maintaining a brain health as you age. A variation on the use it or lose it theme. But what exactly does being mentally active mean in this sense? Is reading a book OK and watching an action movie not?
A new study tackles this question and the findings are interesting. Turns out activities such as – playing a game, listening to classical music or solving cross word puzzles – “probably won’t bring noticeable benefits to an aging mind”. That is an interesting claim as these types are activities are frequently sited as good examples of what should provide benefit.
The key is to engage in mental activities outside your comfort zone that force you to learn new skills. For example, learning photography or quilting. The general point is:
“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,…”
Doing mental activities that we have already mastered, while still worthwhile, may not be providing the brain boost and protection we need as we age.
In the Next Brain blog we report on foods that offer some scientific promise of either protecting your brain health or improving cognitive performance. A list of 10 Top Foods to Boost Brainpower published by Forbes Magazine caught my eye. While it includes items typically found on such lists – for example blueberries, curry and walnuts – it also includes many I don’t normally see such as chickpeas, celery and crab.
The claim about crab is particularly interesting. A serving exceeds your daily requirement of phenylalanine, an amino acid that is needed to create dopamine. I am going to do a little research into that and will blog my findings.
Source of image: openclipart.org
Sharp Brains organized an on-line summit focused on understanding how neuroscience-based innovation can enhance behavioral and brain health. The event included some 30 speakers covering industry and academia. The organizers summarized the top 30 highlights some of which are relevant for readers of the Next Brain Blog. For example:
“The breakdown of how much time/effort is required to practice different types of meditation/relaxation exercises, and why Kirtan Kriya meditation may be more efficient and scalable than other forms of meditation as a public brain health measure for Alzheimer’s Disease prevention. (Dharma Singh Khalsa)”
You can access recordings to all the talks for $175. I am going to buy and review them later this month.
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In the Next Brain blog we report on research that suggests how we think about our own mental abilities has a significant impact on how well we perform. For example, in Perception of Age Impacts Cognitive Performance, we reported on a study that shows simply “thinking that you are old” will impact your score on a dementia test.
Self-image, especially as it relates to what we believe we know, might be a powerful placebo for cognitive performance. More evidence comes from Your Thinking can Release Abilities Beyond Normal Limits, in The Scientific American. The article reviews an experiment that shows if you expect to know the answer to a question you tend to score better.
Such results suggest (but by no means prove) that confidence, positive thinking, a growth mindset and affirmation could have a significant impact on memory, learning, creativity, visual acuity and a wide-range of cognitive performances.
This is a good news. It does not take too much effort to develop a positive affirmation about our mental abilities and then repeat it on a regular basis. For example, when struggling with a hard problem you could regularly repeat: ”As I have in the past, I will see the answer to this problem”. You could even combine the affirmation with a ritual such as sitting in your creative chair or wearing your lucky shirt.
I am interested to hear from readers that have examples of placebos for cognitive performance.
Mind Tools has developed a 16-question creativity test you can complete in about 3 minutes. Not only does it give you an overall creativity score and rank, but you get a question by question analysis and suggestions for how to improve.
I have built some of the best techniques for improving creativity into NewHabits, a free iPhone and iPad app. Once you download the app, tap the store tab and check out Reframe, a deck of knowledge cards designed to help you master advanced creativity techniques.
There are a total of 25 cards. Play a card daily from your mobile device to experiment with and eventually master a proven creativity technique. Cards are designed to fit into everyday routines and take minutes to use. The Reframe cards work by converting general advice and complex how-to knowledge about creativity into right-sized chunks that are optimized for how we learn from experience.
A list of the Refram cards and an example are shown below.
A recent study demonstrated that two cups of hot cocoa a day for a month improved brain health and thinking skills in the elderly. The study included 60 people who on average were in there 70s. Those participants with impaired blood flow showed an 8.3% percent improvement in blood flow and a 31% improvement in response time on a working memory test.
In more technical terms:
There is a strong correlation between neurovascular coupling and cognitive function, and both can be improved by regular cocoa consumption in individuals with baseline impairments. Better neurovascular coupling is also associated with greater white matter structural integrity.
Neurovascular coupling refers to the link between brain activity and the amount of cerebral blood flow. Better blood flow, better thinking. This is a new finding.
Participants consumed no other chocolate during the test.
Cognition is embodied. That is, how well you think and learn is in part controlled by how you use your body. We have covered many examples of how this works in the Next Brain Blog including stepping back for better emotional control, talking with your hands, thinking by walking around, posture effects (e.g. folding your arms) and short-duration physical activities interspersed with study.
See Use Your Body to Improve Thinking Instantly for more details.
Now the PsyBlog offers an excellent summary in 8 Easy Bodily Actions that Transform Mental Performance. These include for example, how using a deep voice can improve abstract thinking, a power stance can improve your sense of control, and just imaging yourself walking towards an important person or object can increase a sense of mastery.
Some of these are new to me and I am actively experimenting with them. Interested to hear from readers that have tried them out.
Being thirsty might be distracting enough to significantly interfere with your results on a simple response time test. At least that is what recent research reported in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests.
The Live Science blog summarizes the experiment nicely in the post, Drinking Water May Provide a Mental Boost. The bottom line:
“In the study, participants who drank about three cups of water (24 ounces, or 775 milliliters) before taking a battery of cognitive tests performed better on a test that measured reaction times compared with those who did not drink water…Reaction times were 14 percent faster among the water group than the no water group.”
For this effect to work participants needed to feel thirsty and were asked to avoid eating and drinking over the night before the experiment.
The article goes on to report that the link between slaking your thirst and cognitive performance is far from clear.
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A group of artists, brain imaging specialists, computer programmers, neuro-technologists and others are building a 15 foot model of the brain. It includes a network of colorful LED lights that are activated by signals sent from a portable EEG headset you wear while walking through the model.
The plan is to launch the project at the next Burning Man event. The team hopes (pending funding) to then take it to schools and inspire students and teachers.
As we age our memory changes. Sometimes it is hard to know if your experiences are natural “senior moments” or early warning signs of serious memory problems such as those related to dementia, mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. MemTrax was developed to help address this issue. It is a simple visual memory test you can take in 1-4 minutes. Your score is easy to understand and if you take the test on a regular basis, say every month, you can see how it changes over time.
The initial test is free and you can see how it works in this demo. You can take the test on from your computer, iPhone or iPad.
I am interested to hear from readers that use MemTrax or other instruments that screen for neurodegenerative memory decline.