Executive Function

Rules of Mental Engagement

One of the best ways to sharpen your mind is to debate others.  Whether you do it formally or informally in written form or verbal form challenging the thinking of another person will give you a good mental work out.

But what are the rules of mental engagement? How can it be done in a civil way that maximizes its brain boosting effects?  One of the best suggestions I have seen comes from Daniel Dennett a well-known philosopher in his new book, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking.

He starts the book with a quote that very much reflects the philosophy of the Next Brain Blog:

“You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.”

His specific suggestion for engaging others is summarized in the section on Rapoport’s Rules and involves a four step process:

  1. First you summarize the other person’s point and have them confirm that you understand it.
  2. List all the points you agree with.
  3. List the new things that you have learned from studying the other person’s position.
  4. Finally offer an initial criticism or rebuttal.

An excellent way to positively provide feedback and engage others in discussion and debate.  It also gives your brain an excellent workout by requiring emotional control, replay, reflection and critical reasoning.

Rapaport’s rules are only one example of the many thinking tools Dennette reviews.  I will blog about several others later this month.

Next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone apply Rapaport’s rules and give your brain a workout.

10 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - June 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Categories: Ancient Ways, Executive Function   Tags:

More Evidence for Mind-Body Techniques

In the Next Brain Blog we look at  evidence-based techniques for achieving peak mental performance at any age.   What can we do to maintain brain health and improve cognitive performance?

Several posts have focused on mind-body techniques.  Such techniques ask us to focus on the connection between how we think and feel and various bodily functions and activities.  Yoga, mindful breathing and mediation are examples.  While such techniques are often viewed as fuzzy or new age, we have been documenting the growing evidence for how they improve brain function and cognitive performance on the Next Brain blog.

Additional evidence was recently published by the Boston University School of Medicine. They conduct a class with 27 medical students on Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being. It ran for 11 weeks and covered the neuroscience and methods for slow breathing, resistance breathing, Yoga, the placebo effect and mindful mediation practices. Students were asked to practice the methods at least three times per week.

Assessments before and after the course revealed a statistically significant improvement in the student’s capacity for self-regulation and self-compassion.

Self-regulation is our ability to manage our thoughts, feelings and impulses in order to achieve planned behaviors and goals.  A  capability that is essential for improvement, success and well-being in any walk of life.

For more information you can access the entire article for free. Be sure to check out table one that lists the topics and required readings for the course.

While the Boston work does not surface any new techniques it does add to the evidence for the effectiveness on the mind-body approach.  The fact that doctors-to-be are learning about them  in medical school signals a maturing and acceptance of the the approach.

How are you using  mind-brain techniques to improve your cognitive performance?

Source of Image: Dr. Deb’s Psychological Perspectives

22 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - May 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Categories: Ancient Ways, Executive Function, Manage Emotions, Training   Tags:

Do ADHD Meds Make Healthy People Smarter?

Many of the emails I get about building a Next Brain have to do with drugs, especially medication prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. Readers want to know if there is evidence to support the claim that people without ADHD that still use drugs like Adderall will experience improved brain function and enhanced cognitive performance.

Important note: Using medications outside of the boundaries of their prescription or using medications without a prescription can be unsafe and illegal.

The 2011 September issue of the Psychological Bulletin has taken this question up with articles on who takes so-called smart pills and what kind of effects they are having.  My favorite paper,

Are Prescription Stimulants “Smart Pills”? The Epidemiology and Cognitive Neuroscience of Prescription Stimulant Use by Normal Healthy Individuals,

reviews results from over 40 studies finds:

“The cognitive effects of stimulants on normal healthy people cannot yet be characterized definitively, despite the volume of research that has been carried out on these issues. Published evidence suggests that declarative memory can be improved by stimulants, with some evidence consistent with enhanced consolidation of memories. Effects on the executive functions of working memory and cognitive control are less reliable but have been found for at least some individuals on some tasks.”

In short there is some evidence for improved learning by memorizing (simple list of items) but doubt about significant  improvement on working memory (how much information you can attend to at one) or self control.

More research is in the works but early results signal that the smart pill in its current form is not a silver bullet for the Next Brain.

13 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - September 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Categories: College Student, Executive Function, Mental Focus   Tags:

Learning Self Control Early Drives Success

Developing Your Next Brain, or making an effort to improve brain function and reach peak cognitive performance takes a lot of work. One reason we do it is to live a more successful life.  While life success has many facets most agree that a cornerstone is self control. Being able to shape our own thinking and emotional responses, manage impulses, avoid self defeating assumptions and persistence in the face of obstacles is critical to living the good life.  This has little to do with IQ and a lot to do with your ability to manage yourself.

There is considerable evidence to support this claim. Take for example, the recent research reported in Science News that suggests:

Good self management skills as early as age three predict health and wealth in adulthood.

The findings are dramatic:

“Low levels of conscientiousness, perseverance and other elements of self-control in youngsters as young as age 3 herald high rates of physical health problems, substance abuse, financial woes, criminal arrests and single parenthood by age 32, says an international team led by psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi of Duke University in Durham, N.C.”

How can children develop higher levels of self-control?  Research from another group reported in the article claimed behavioral rewards,  developing coping skills and role playing simulation using videotape are key. None of this is rocket science. For example, coping skills can include blowing bubbles and making funny faces. The rub is to learn to do these things rather than getting angry or stressed and yelling at others or giving up on a goal.

Very interested to hear from readers that have experience with specific techniques for improving self control and self management skills in children.

14 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - March 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Categories: Child, Executive Function, Manage Emotions, Other, Training   Tags: ,

Evidence Mounts – Caffeine & Sugar Boost Cognitive Performance

Science News just published an easy to read review article on what the latest scientific studies reveal about nutritional supplements and brain function.  The evidence that certain supplements are brain boosters is really mounting.  The “mental menu” shown to the right  is taken directly from the article.

This means for example, a snack including caffeinated tea and a sugary treat should produce a short-lived but intense boost in mental energy and cognitive performance.

16 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - February 19, 2011 at 8:05 am

Categories: Diet, Executive Function, Memory and Learning, Mental Focus   Tags:

Vastly Improve Mental Focus By Switching

Prolonging mental focus is not about taking a rest break but momentarily switching to a task to get a jolt of mental energy or novelty.

Staying focused on a specific task or topic can be difficult. Called vigilance or our ability to “keep watch” it is vitally important for top mental performance in any field.   As such we will cover scientific studies on how to improve mental focus and vigilance on the Next Brain Blog.

For example,  new research from University of Illinois reported in the journal Cognition found that brief diversions from a task actually vastly improves your mental focus.  While we all know you need to take breaks to stay fresh, this finding is different.

Test subjects in this study memorized four digits (four different numbers each less than 10) before taking on a different mental task for 50 minutes.  Subjects were told to signal if they saw one of the digits flash on the computer screen they were working with.   Some of the test subjects were shown digits during work on the 50-minute task (called the switch group) others were not. There was also a control group that knew nothing about the digits but saw them during the task.  Here is what they found:

“As expected, most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the task. But critically, Lleras said, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time”.

The brief diversions rather than hurting mental focus provides the novelty that we need to stay focus. We lose mental focus when nothing changes. We get bored and details fad into the background.

Note the switch group did not take a five minute break, they did not even take a 1 minute break. It is not about resting.  It is about getting a small jolt of mental energy or novelty.

You can improve cognitive performance on long tasks by momentarily switching to tasks that provide a small dash of mental novelty.   Interested to hear from readers that use this technique. What small diversions or switching tasks do you use?

13 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - February 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Categories: Executive Function, Lifestyle, Mental Focus   Tags:

Brainwave Control Toys Move Forward

Learning to control your brainwaves through concentration, relaxation, visualization, meditation and other techniques is a cornerstone for peak cognitive performance.  Learning to control your brainwave is often difficult because you don’t have direct and immediate feedback on what state you are in. Neurofeedback devices that display information about brain states in real-time solve that problem.  The devices work on a brain-to-computer interface and have recently move into the consumer market.

You can get simple models for home use and they have been built into games.

Neurofeedback offers one of the best hopes for a breakthrough in brain training and peak cognitive performance.

So I am always on the look out for new consumer-level neurofeedback devices that might be of interest to readers of the Next Brain Brain blog.   Mattel has announced a new version of their Mindflex mental acuity game, call Mindflex Duel:  The cost is $99.  Here is the short story:

“Using advanced technology, Mindflex Duel headsets sense brain activity and send messages to the game platform. Strap on a headset, connect the sensor clip to your earlobe, and align the strap’s metal sensor so it’s flush against your forehead. Your brain activity will trigger the game platform’s motors, which will propel the ball. Bulk up your brain, sharpen your focus, and battle your friends with this hands-free challenge!”

Being able to do neurofeedback in a competitive mode could be a big step forward in using the technology for brain training.

Very interested to hear from readers that use home-based neurofeedback to improve brain function and achieve peak cognitive performance.

9 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - January 12, 2011 at 2:13 am

Categories: Executive Function, Mental Focus, Software   Tags: ,

Does Inner Voice Improve Cognitive Performance?

We all have an inner voice. In fact, we talk to ourselves silently throughout the day.  Our inner voice is a big part of our mental life but what role does it play in improving brain function and cognitive performance?

Found an interesting new study from the University of Toronto that suggest Inner Voice Plays a Role in Self Control.  Here is what they claim:

“Through a series of tests, we found that people acted more impulsively when they couldn’t use their inner voice or talk themselves through the tasks,” says Inzlicht. “Without being able to verbalize messages to themselves, they were not able to exercise the same amount of self control as when they could talk themselves through the process.”

What kind of self talk works best?  There has been a lot written on avoiding negative self talk especially if it involves cognitive distortions (e.g. I NEVER do anything right) as well as the power of positive self talk.   The interesting thing about the Toronto study is that it did not control for the tone of your inner voice. Common sense suggests keeping neutral or positive and task focused is best.

Like to hear from readers that use inner voice to improve cognitive performance. What do you say and why do you think it works?

20 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - September 24, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Categories: Executive Function, Lifestyle, Manage Emotions, Mental Focus, Training   Tags:

Integrated Brain Training Over the Web

MyBrainSolutions offers a software-based brain training program over the web. There are also some apps for your smart phone. You can sign up for the basic membership for free or pay $9.95/month for the premium service. With the premium service you complete a brain assessment and get training recommendations based on your specific needs. You also get access to more training exercises. The basic membership gives you four. With both memberships you get a personal dashboard (web page) that provides access to your tools and results.

The program appears unique in its emphasis on emotions,  thinking, feelings and self-regulation and how they work together in an integrated way.  You can watch a five minute video on the site that explains it.  The emphasis on automatic processing of emotional queues (mainly facial expressions) and how that shapes our intuitions and decision-making, is right on. I have not seen any other brain training program tackle that.

I am using the basic membership and like what I see. Interested to hear from readers that have purchased the premium membership. Is it worth $10 per month? Thanks.

8 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - July 1, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Categories: Executive Function, Manage Emotions, Memory and Learning, Software   Tags: , ,

Silence at the Right Time Improves Cognition

A  Psychology Today blog has an excellent post on the effective use of silence. It is a good reminder that just being quiet often gives the brain a chance to work well. Being silent can improve your listening skills, self control and even your attractiveness to others. The key is to know when to get into the quiet zone – for example, when you are angry or when someone else is speaking.

When it comes to exercising the power of silence to achieve self-control the author writes:

“Think how much more in control you’d not only appear but actually be if your first response upon hearing or seeing something that sparks a strong reaction in you wasn’t to lash out emotionally but instead to become–silent. Silence is a terrific substitute for self-control, not only creating its appearance, but over time and with practice its substance as well.”

Although similar to the “count to 10 rule” for managing anger it is a bit different. The idea is to focus on being silent or learning to get into the quiet zone.

Interested to hear from readers that practice the power of silence and how it has helped them be more effective.

1 comment - What do you think?  Posted by Mark Clare - May 21, 2010 at 2:17 am

Categories: Ancient Ways, Executive Function, Lifestyle, Manage Emotions   Tags:

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