Thursday, January 26, 2012

Boosting brain power

by Richard L. Weaver II
For me it hasn’t been about “boosting brain power,” it is more about “sustaining brain power.”  That is, I don’t like the thought of losing anything I have, and if I gain a little by doing things that will sustain what I have, then that is icing on the cake, or a positive byproduct that is greatly appreciated.  I try to do more than what it takes to keep my brain active just as I do more than what it takes to keep my body in shape.
My 98-year-old father-in-law gives credence to the comment by Elizabeth Zelinski, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Southern California, who said, “the research now suggests you have a good chance of keeping your brain sharp if you commit to the right kind of concentrated effort.”  This is a paraphrase by the unknown author of “Build a Better Brain,” an article in The Hartford’s Extra Mile bulletin (Winter, 2011, pp. 6-8).  Although my father-in-law engages in a limited amount of physical exercise (walking), a limited amount of contact with other people (mainly at mealtimes), he is a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines, and books.  His mind and memory are sharp as a tack.
Asking the question, “Can you build a better brain?” Sharon Begley, in a Newsweek essay of the same name (January 10 & 17, pp. 40-45), claims that “The quest for effective ways to boost cognitive capacity is not hopeless . . . The explosion in neuroscience is slowly revealing the mechanisms of cognition” (p. 42).  And here is a sentence most hardworking people will greatly appreciate: “. . . in people who excel at particular tasks, Stern’s neuroimaging studies show, brain circuits tend to be more efficient (using less energy even as cognitive demand increases), higher capacity, and more flexible” (p. 43).
Now, Begley reports one finding that should prompt everyone to vary what they do in life: “ . . . skills we’re already good at don’t make us much smarter; we don’t pay much attention to them.  In contrast, taking up a new cognitively demanding activity — ballroom dancing, a foreign language — is more likely to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functional networks” (p. 43).  That is why the suggestions offered in The Hartford’s Extra Mile bulletin, cited above, make good sense.  The essay, as its first of seven “Tips to Enhance Brain Fitness,” suggests that we “Learn to play a new instrument” (p. 7).  It states that the reason is that “You’ll exercise several brain functions, related to sight, hearing, and movement.”  That’s true, but it is just as true that it will boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functional networks — which is likely to result in even greater rewards.
The Hartford’s Extra Mile bulletin also offers other tips besides learning to play a new instrument that may yield the same benefits.  These include making your hobbies harder, using your other hand, and walking on a rocky road.
In an online article (03-20-09), “Building a Better Brain,” at the web site, Isthmus, The Daily Page, Jennifer A. Smith, reports on a speech given by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience.  He “was speaking on neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to remain flexible, adaptable and trainable,” she writes.  “It’s one of the foundations of his work.”
“The adult brain, scientists now realize,” Smith reports, “continues to make about 5,000 new cells per day. It is ever changing, or ‘plastic,’ throughout life.”  Now, citing Davidson, she quotes him as saying, "Traits formerly considered to be fixed are really not.  They’re characteristics that can be changed through training.  In other words, human beings have more control over [their] minds than previously thought. . . . We’re carrying our own laboratory between our ears, and we just need to use it," Davidson told the crowd.
At the Stanford Medical Magazine web site, (Fall 2005) Amy Adams has written an essay, “Building a better brain: It's never too late for renovation,” in which she cites the work of Eric Knudsen, PhD, a professor of neurobiology.  Knudsen said there is more to it than simply playing a new instrument, learning a foreign language, or beginning ballroom dancing.  It is all about laying the groundwork for growth.  He claims that, “. . . building the best possible brain is all about preparation. True, a child can’t learn algebra until the brain is ready. But how well the child picks up that new skill can be altered by early experiences that prime those neurons and their connections for action.”
Adams offers this conclusion to her online article: “What all this research adds up to is good news for those who had rich and rewarding early experiences. Their brains are primed for learning new skills throughout life. As for adults hoping to make late-term modifications to their brains’ wiring, all hope isn’t lost. Knudsen’s work shows that older [people] can still learn, if somewhat more slowly than juveniles. As with any remodel, it’s less efficient than starting from scratch, but with patience even fully mature brains can squeeze out some new connections.”
There is an almost contradictory finding in Begley’s Newsweek article which explains why my father-in-law has maintained his sharp mind and memory throughout his 97 years.  It has nothing to do with learning new skills or developing new abilities.  Begley writes that building brain power “requires tapping into one of the best-established phenomena in neuroscience — namely, that the more you use a circuit, the stronger it gets.  As a result, a skill you focus and train on improves, and even commandeers more neuronal real estate, with corresponding improvements in performance” (p. 44).
That is precisely what I have discovered as well.  That is, although I enjoy learning new skills (special ballroom dancing steps), having new experiences (cruising to Southeast Asia), and stretching the skills I already have (reading new books or writing new essays such as this one), I have discovered that the more I use the circuits I possess, the stronger they get.  That is why I said at the outset of this essay, “ it hasn’t been about ‘boosting brain power,’ it is more about ‘sustaining brain power.’” To me, that is the essential issue, and if I can boost brain power while sustaining brain power, all the more brain power to me!
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From the Stanford School of Medicine comes the Stanford Medicine Magazine (referred to in my essay), and the article by Amy Adams, “Building a better brain: It's never too late for renovation” (Fall, 2005).  This is really a very well-written, well-explained essay that is both thorough and comprehensive.  It is well worth a read.

At eMedExpert, the essay, “14 Research-Proven Ways To Boost Brain Power,” is excellent.  Not only are the suggestions right on target, but at the end of the essay each of the 47 “Sources and References” that support the essay are not just listed in their correct entirety, but in each case there is a link so that you can go to the research and read it for yourself.  This is an absolutely terrific essay.
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Copyright January, 2012, by And Then Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.

1 comment:

  1. Time for some "brain renovation." I'm thinking learning Chinese might be a good idea.


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