Archive for Neuroscience Interview Series

We have moved

Hello dear readers: after a transition period, we have definitively moved to http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog

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Please visit us there if you want to keep reading our (close to) daily articles. Please update your feed, and any technorati/ stumbleupon/ del.ic.ious account you may have pointing at this old address. Our new location:
http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog

We won’t be posting more articles here.

We’ll see you there!
-Caroline & Alvaro

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Brain Fitness February Newsletter/ Brain Awareness Week

We hope you are enjoying the growing coverage of Brain Fitness as much as we are. Below you have the monthly email update we sent a few days ago.

In this post, we will briefly cover:

I. Press: see what CBS and Time Magazine are talking about. SharpBrains was introduced in the Birmingham News, Chicago Tribune and in a quick note carried by the American Psychological Association news service.

II. Events: we are outreach partners for the Learning & the Brain conference, which will gather neuroscientists and educators, and for the Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week.

III. Program Reviews: The Wall Street Journal reviewed six different programs for brain exercise and aging, and the one we offer is one of the two winners. A college-level counseling center starts offering our stress management one. And we interview a Notre Dame scientist who has conducted a replication study for the working memory training program for kids with ADD/ ADHD.

IV. New Offerings: we have started to offer two information packages that can be very useful for people who want to better understand this field before they commit to any particular program: learn more about our Brain Fitness 101 guide and Exercise Your Brain DVD.

V. Website and Blog Summary: we revamped our home page and have had a very busy month writing many good articles. We also hosted two “Blog Carnivals”- don’t you want to know what that means? Continue Reading

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Neuroscience Interview Series: on learning and “brain gyms”

Given that we are getting new readers let’s re-introduce our Neuroscience Interview Series. If you click on the category (in the right bar) that says Neuroscience Interview Series, you will find the updated list of interviews we have conducted (and also some that have found elsewhere, such as the one with Posit Science’s Dr. Michael Merzenich and Dr. John Ratey).

The interviews we have conducted and published so far, with most recent first:

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2007 New Year Resolution: Carnival of Brain Fitness

Happy 2007 to everyone!

We have just formulated our New Year Resolution: make 2007 the year when Brain Fitness became a mainstream concept.

How do we start? well, let’s announce the launch of the Carnival of Brain Fitness (a Blog Carnival is basically the vehicle that blogs use to share posts around specific topics).

Goal: to facilitate a dialogue about this emerging field across multiple perspectives, from scientists and health professionals, to education and training ones, to basically everyone who has conducted an experiment on his on her brain and mind, and has news to report.

Context: The scientific foundations lie in neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, cognitive training and stress management. Medical and health applications range from stroke and TBI rehabilitation to ADD/ADHD and early Alzheimer’s to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and cognitive therapy. Educational and training applications go from helping kids improve reading abilities to helping manage stress and anxiety – including work with the “mental game” in sports and high-demand activities pr professions. Each of us may also have experiences to report, where we saw first hand, no matter our age, our innate ability to refine and transform ourselves (and our brains).

Mechanics: If you’d like to contribute,

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New Brain Fitness Guide

We are very excited to announce our newly released Brain Fitness for Sharp Brains: Your New New Year Resolution. We wrote it in order to provide an introduction to the concept, science, and practice of brain fitness in plain English, by answering the Top 25 questions we have received over the last four months. Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, Alvaro Fernandez and myself (Caroline) have been working hard on this.

You can click here to receive your complimentary copy of the complete guide. Otherwise, please make sure to check our new blog location here, as we will publish a new question and its answer every Monday and Thursday before 9AM Pacific Standard Time. If we missed your pressing question, let us know!

Here is a sneak preview of the questions we will be answering …

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Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg on Brain Fitness Programs and Cognitive Training

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg is a clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and author of over 50 peer-reviewed papers. His areas of expertise include executive functions, memory, attention deficit disorder, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and others. Dr. Goldberg was a student and close associate of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. His book The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (Oxford University Press, 2001) has received critical acclaim and has been published in 12 languages. His recent book The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older (Gotham Books, Penguin, 2005) offers an innovative understanding of cognitive aging and what can be done to forestall cognitive decline. It has been, or is in the process of being, published in 13 languages.

We are fortunate that Dr. Goldberg is SharpBrains’ Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor. His book The Wisdom Paradox inspired me to embark in this path, and has been a key sounding board in the development of what we are doing.

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Key take-aways

- “Use It and Get More of It” reflects reality better than “Use It or Lose It”. 

- Let’s demystify cognition and the brain. Everyone needs to have a basic understanding of the brain-and how to cultivate it.

- Well-directed mental exercise is a must for cognitive enhancement and healthy aging.

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Roots: Vygotsky and Luria

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Elkhonon, maybe we could start with Vygotsky. At one of my Stanford classes, I became fascinated by his theory of learning. Which links into modern neuropsychology.

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG): Vygotsky proposed that learning requires internalization. And that internalization equals, literally, a change in the brain of the learner. Of course there weren’t advanced neuroimaging techniques those days, so scientists could only speculate about what happened in healthy brains. But they could carefully analyze what happened with patients who had suffered any kind of serious brain problem, from strokes to traumatic brain injury. And this is how neuropsychology was born: Alexander Luria, Vygotsky’s disciple, and my own mentor, was commissioned to help rehabilitate Russian soldiers with brain injuries during WWII. This provided invaluable clinical material for understanding the mechanisms of the healthy brain. Much of modern cognitive neuroscience rests its foundation in Luria’s work.

Neuroimaging

AF: and now we have new neuroimaging techniques.

EG: Precisely. It is often said that new neuroimaging methods have changed neuroscience in the same way that the telescope changed astronomy. We use MRI, PET, SPECT, fMRI and MEG both in neuroscience research and in clinical practice. None of these techniques is perfect, but used properly they provide us with a much better understanding than as only as 30 years ago.

Research and work

AF: please tell us about your main research and practical interests.

EG: As you can see in my papers and books, I will categorize them in 3 areas-a) computer-based cognitive training/ Brain Fitness overall, b) healthy cognitive aging, and c) frontal lobes and executive functions. I am also interested in memory, hemispheric interaction, and in a general theory of cortical functional organization, but we will leave this for another occasion and focus today on those three areas.

First, Cognitive Training/ Brain Fitness. Rigorous and targeted cognitive training has been used in clinical practice for many years. It can help improve memory, attention, confidence and competence, reasoning skills, even how to reduce anxiety and deal with uncomfortable situations.

Second, healthy cognitive aging. The brain evolves as we age. Some areas, such as pattern recognition, get better with age. Some require extra-workouts in order to reduce “chinks in the armor” and increase neuroprotection through the Cognitive (or Brain) Reserve). Hence, the need for targeted cognitive training.

Third, the Frontal lobes and executive functions, which permeate seemingly very different problems such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s, are critical for our identity and successful daily functioning so they require extra attention.

Frontal Lobes and executive functions

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typically call them the Executive Brain. The prefrontal cortex is young on evolutionary terms, and is the brain area critical to adapt to new situations, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objectives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our forehead, acts as the conductor of an orchestra, directing and integrating the work of other parts of the brain.

I provide a good example in The Executive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to organize my escape from Russia into the US.

Significantly, the pathways that connect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reaching full operational state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typically the first areas to decline.

Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness

AF: And is that one of the areas where cognitive training/ Brain Fitness Programs can help

EG: Yes. Most programs I have seen so far are better at training other brain areas, which are also very important, but we are getting there, with examples such as working memory training, emotional self-regulation and domain-specific decision-making. Some of the spectacular research and clinical findings of the last 20 years that remain to be discovered by the population at large are that we enjoy lifelong brain plasticity and Neurogenesis, that the rate of development of new neurons can be influenced by cognitive activities, and that intense mental challenges provide extra resistance to ageing.

Exercising our brains in systematic ways is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”. And computer-based programs are proving to be a great vehicle for that “Use It”.

Emotions and Art Continue Reading

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SharpBrains: we have moved!

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We moved to a new location.
Please update your bookmarks and links to our new location at:
http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog

We’ll see you there!
-Caroline & Alvaro

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Enhancing Trader Performance and The Psychology of Trading: Interview with Brett N. Steenbarger

Today we are going to talk about the applications of cognitive neuroscience to trading and neurofinance. Brett N. Steenbarger , Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, active trader for over 30 years, former Director of Trader Development for Kingstree Trading, LLC, and author of The Psychology of Trading: Tools and Techniques for Minding the Markets(Wiley, 2003) and the new Enhancing Trader Performance: Proven Strategies From the Cutting Edge of Trading Psychology (Wiley, 2007).

He writes feature columns for the Trading Markets website and several trading publications, including Stocks Futures and Options Magazine.

Key take-aways 

-Elite performers in any highly-competitive field follow structured learning and training processes to develop their skills, ensuring continuous feedback and refinement.

- Traders would benefit to following this example. Tools at their disposal include books, simulation programs, biofeedback programs for emotional management, and coaches.

- Specific skills to train are brain speed and working memory (for short-term traders), analytical skills (long-term ones). For both, managing emotional-driven impulsive behavior.

Books on Trading and Peak Performance

Alvaro Fernandez (Alvaro): Welcome, Prof. Steenbarger. Why don’t you start by providing us some context on your interest in trading performance and how it led you to your new book?

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Cognitive Simulations for Basketball Game-Intelligence: Interview with Prof. Daniel Gopher

Professor Gopher Professor Daniel Gopher is a fellow of the U.S. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the International Ergonomics Association, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Human Factors Engineering at Technion, Israel’s Institute of Science, and one of world’s leading figures in the field of Cognitive Training.

(For bloggers: please note that we have moved to a new “home”. If you are interested in linking to this post, please link to http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2006/11/02/cognitive-simulations-for-basketball-game-intelligence-interview-with-prof-daniel-gopher/. Thanks!). 

During his 40 year career, he has held a variety of scientific and academic positions, such as acting Head of the Research Unit of the Military Personnel Division, Associate Editor of the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, member of the Editorial Boards of Acta Psychologica, the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, and the journal Psychology.

He published an award-winning article in 1994, Gopher, D., Weil, M. and Baraket, T. (1994), Transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to flight, Human Factors 36, 1–19., that constitutes a key milestone in the cognitive engineering field.

Prof. Gopher has also developed innovative a) medical systems, assessing the nature and causes of human error in medical work, and redesigning medical work environments to improve safety and efficiency, and b) work safety systems, developing methods and models for the analysis of human factors, ergonomic, safety and health problems at the individual, team and plant level.

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Professor Gopher, it is an honor that you speak to us. Could you provide an overview of the projects are you working on now? Read the rest of this entry »

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An ape can do this. Can we not?

braintop Learning through a virtuous Learning Cycle. That’s the message from Dr. James Zull, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at Case Western University, Director of UCITE (The University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education), and Professor of a Human Learning and The Brain class.
Dr. Zull loves to learn. And to teach. And to build connections. He has spent years building bridges between neurobiology and pedagogy, as a result of which he wrote The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, which shows how neurobiological research can inform and refine some of the best ideas in educational theory. braintop

In that book, Prof. Zull added biological substrate to David Kolb’s Learning Cycle framework. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development book refers to human learning, but Professor Zull tells that today, in his desk, he has cognitive neuroscience papers and research that show that apes go through the same 4 stages when they are learning a new activity, activating exactly the same brain areas than we do.

AF: What is Learning? Can apes really learn in the same way we do?

JZ: Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons, connections–called synapses– and neuronal networks, through experience. And, yes, we have seen that apes go through the same Learning Cycle as we do, activating the same brain areas.

AF: How does Learning happen?

These are the 4 stages of the Learning Cycle.
1) We have a Concrete experience,
2) We develop Reflective Observation and Connections,
3) We generate Abstract hypothesis,
4) We then do Active testing of those hypotheses, and therefore have a new Concrete experience, and a new Learning Cycle ensues.

In other words, we 1) get information (sensory cortex), 2) make meaning of that information (back integrative cortex), 3) create new ideas from these meanings (front integrative cortex) and 4) act on those ideas (motor cortex). From this I propose that there are four pillars of learning: gathering, analyzing, creating, and acting.

This is how we learn. Now, learning this way requires effort and getting out of our comfort zones. A key condition for learning is self-driven motivation, a sense of ownership. To feel in control, to feel that one is making progress, is necessary for this Learning Cycle to self-perpetuate. Antonio Damasio made a strong point on the role of emotions in his great Descartes’ Error book.

AF: can we, as learners, motivate ourselves? How can we become better learners?

JZ: Great question, because in fact that is a uniquely human ability, at least to the degree we can do so. We know that the Frontal Lobes, which are proportionally much larger in humans than in any other mammal, are key for emotional self-regulation. We can be proactive and identify the areas that motivate us, and build on those. In other words, the Art of the Learner may be the Art of Finding Connections between the new information and challenges and what we already know and care about.

If I had to select one Mental Muscle that students should really exercise, and grow, during the schooling years, I’d say they need to build this Learning Muscle. Learning how to Learn. That might be even more valuable than learning what we stress in the curriculum, i.e., the subjects we teach.

AF: Do you think this is happening today in our schools?

JZ: I don’t think so. First, of all, too many people still believe that Education means the process by which students passively absorb information. Even if many educators would like to ensure a more participatory and active approach, we still use the structures and priorities of another era. For example, we still pay too much attention to categorizing some kids as intelligent, some as not so, instead of focusing on how they could all learn more.

Second, learning and changing are not that easy. They require effort, and also, by definition, getting out of our comfort zones. We need to try new things, and to fail. The Active Testing phase is a critical one, and sometimes our hypothesis will be right, and sometimes wrong. The fear of failing, the fear of looking un-smart, is a key obstacle to learning that I see too often, especially for people who want to protect perceived reputations to such an extent that they can’t try new genuine Learning Cycles.

AF: Fascinating. Given what you just said, how do you help your students become better learners?

JZ: Despite the fact that every brain is different, let me simplify and say that I usually observe 2 types of students, with different obstacles to learning and therefore benefiting from different strategies.

A) Students who have an introversion tendency can be very good at the Reflection and Abstract hypothesis phases, but not so at the Active Testing one. In order to change that, I help create small groups where they feel safer and can take risks such as sharing their thoughts aloud and asking more questions.

B) More extroverted students can be very good at having constant Concrete experiences and Active Testing, but may benefit from increased Reflection and Abstract hypothesis. Having them write papers, maybe predicting the outcome of certain experiments or even current political affairs, helps.

AF: Very useful. What other tips would you offer to teachers and parents?

JZ: Always provoke an active reaction, ensuring the student is engaged and sees the connection between the new information and what he or she already knows. You can do so by asking questions such as “What does this make you think of? Is there some part of this new material that rings a wild bell for you?” To ensure a safe learning environment, you have to make sure to accept their answers, and build on them. We should view students as plants and flowers that need careful cultivation: growing some areas, helping reduce others.

AF: Please give us an example.

JZ: Well, an example I use in my books is that middle school students often have a hard time learning about Martin Luther and the Reformation because they confuse him with Martin Luther King Jr. We can choose to become frustrated about that. Or we can exploit this saying something like, “Yes! Martin Luther King was a lot like Martin Luther. In fact, why do you think Martin Luther King’s parents named him that? Why didn’t they name him Sam King?”

AF: Thanks. And what would you suggest for us who want to become better learners?

JZ: Learning is critical at all ages, not only in the school environment. We have brains precisely in order to be able to learn, to adapt to new environments. This is essential throughout life, not just in school. We now know that every brain can change, at any age. There is really no upper limit on learning since the brain neurons seem to be capable of growing new connections whenever they are used repeatedly. I think all of us need to develop the capacity to self-motivate ourselves. One way to do that is to search for those meaningful contact points and bridges, between what we want to learn and what we already know. When we do so, we are cultivating our own neuronal networks. We become our own gardeners.

AF: Prof. Zull, many thanks for sharing your thoughts through your book, and for your time today. You have changed my brain-and probably will change the brains of a number of readers.

JZ: My pleasure!

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For more information on his Professor Zull’s thoughts and his book, visit the great
New Horizons for Learning site.

A final reflection: this Learning Cycle is very similar to what people at McKinsey & Company (my first job ever), and other strategic consulting firms, need to develop very quickly, and constitutes the core for a very successful Performance Review system. Interesting to understand the neurobiological basis for it. Brain Fitness starts with Learning. Brain and Mind Fitness means being able, and ready, to learn. Not just an Education issue, but a Health and Wellness and Fitness one.

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