Archive for August, 2006

On being “smart” and building neural connections

Your questions 

– Patricia: Is it possible to improve intelligence and become “smarter” and what does it really mean to be “smarter”?

– Thomas: What could I do to systematicly create more and more neural connections (increase IQ)?

Dr. Gamon responds:

As we age, our brains accumulate an ever larger collection of patterns. This gives us a kind of mental quickness that compensates for the slowing of processing speed. Instead of having to piece together the pattern bit by bit from scratch by associating individual pieces of data, you need only a few pieces of data to make you realize that they fit a pattern you already know, much the way a few bars of melody are all you need to recognize an entire song.

The more experience we accumulate, the more of these patterns we hold in our brains, and the less effort we have to make to piece together new pieces of data in new ways. With that comes a danger. We get lazy. It’s a lot easier to recognize a pattern than to piece the pattern together in the first place.

It also happens that we become limited by the patterns we accumulate in our brains. Instead of having new insights – new patterns – we tend to assume that old patterns are sufficient to handle new data. Maybe in some cases they are, but maybe in some cases we would piece together new patterns if only we were open to the idea that the old patterns might not be all there is.So on the one hand, we have a richer array of patterns to draw on in processing information and figuring things out, and we can come up with creative insights by making connections between patterns that we might at first had thought were completely different. (That’s what metaphors are.)

But one thing we have to guard against as we age is a loss of mental flexibility. Mental flexibility – the ability to switch rapidly between two things at once, or change cognitive horses in mid-stream, or see old things in a brand-new way – naturally tends to decline as we age. So it’s important to do more than just rely on old familiar patterns as we get older. The more patterns we have, the easier it is to get away with relying on them, but the more important it is that we do MORE than just rely on them.

A part of your brain responsible for mental flexibility and really effortful problem-solving is called the prefrontal cortex, which is right up at the front of your brain behind your forehead. This is a part of your brain that tends to decline the most with age. So it’s important to do things that give this part of your brain a lot of exercise. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do it in a way that’s fun rather than just unpleasant. Doing mental arithmetic gives your prefrontal cortex a workout, but it’s not much fun. You’d need an awful lot of willpower to do a lot of mental arithmetic exercises every day, and sooner or later you’d probably just give up.

The trick is to take advantage of all those patterns without JUST relying on them. The thing you need to do is process new data in new ways, and form new patterns all the time, instead of just falling back on the old ones. This is the importance of novelty – not just doing new things with your brain, but also learning new tricks for making sure you’re not just falling back on old patterns when processing new data. So you can keep all those old songs in your mind, but learn new ones too, so your inventory grows larger every day instead of stopping in your 20s or 30s.

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Physical Fitness and Brain Fitness

– Laura asks, “How important is body fitness to mind fitness? And which causes which: body fitness increases mind fitness, or mind fitness increases body fitness?”

– Rachel: “Have you looked much into how more traditional physical exercise can lead to better mental health?”

Dr. Gamon responds:

Very good questions. For years, there has been a large and growing body of evidence that what scientists call an “enriched environment” is crucial for brain health and Brain Fitness.

The three pillars of an enriched environment are mental, physical, and social stimulation. In pioneering studies in the 1960s, U.C. Berkeley researchers such as Marian Diamond showed that rats that get regular exercise literally grow bigger brains than sedentary rats.

A lot of more recent research has corroborated the importance of physical exercise for brain health in humans. This makes sense. After all, the brain is part of the physical body. It is made of cells that are nourished through your blood. So cardiovascular health is obviously important for brain health.  Both physical and mental exercise also boost levels of brain-protective chemicals such as growth hormones.  

Physical exercise also lowers stress, which can be very harmful to both brain and body. Cortisol is a brain-toxic stress hormone produced naturally by the body. It reduces the blood-glucose energy supply to the brain, causing mental confusion and short-term memory problems. It also interferes with the proper function of the brain’s neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that convey messages from one brain cell to another. Chronic stress can keep cortisol levels high for long enough to kill brain cells, and may even play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Physical exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction can all serve to help lower cortisol levels. 

Very recent studies have shown that physical exercise also boosts the brain’s rate of neurogenesis – the rate at which the brain regenerates brain cells. Mental exercise, meanwhile, increases the rate at which those newly-generated brain cells actually survive and become functionally integrated into existing networks in the brain. That’s a neat illustration of the mutually complementary role of physical and mental exercise. You need both for good brain health.

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Welcome to the Brain and Mind Fitness Revolution

We hope you enjoy our blog. We want to provide you with recent and relevant information and tools in the growing field of neuroscience-based Brain Fitness Programs and computer-based brain exercise.

Let’s start the fun. Do you know it all about how to exercise your brain and keep your brain fit and healthy? If so, please let us know! If not, you can ask any questions to SharpBrains’ Scientific Advisors. Dr. Gamon, author of bestsellers such as Building Mental Muscle: Conditioning Exercises for the Six Intelligence Zones, will lead the process to get your questions answered through our blog and in our website.

Please submit any questions by visiting our SharpBrains website. Sample questions: “I already work very hard, why would I need something else at all?”, “I heard that doing sudoku is good for my brain, is that true?”, “what is the difference between Posit Science and BrainAge?” Sample questions: “I already work very hard, why would I need something else at all?”, “I heard that doing sudoku is good for my brain, is that true?”, “what is the difference between Posit Science and BrainAge?”


The SharpBrains Team

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