Can your brain really be trained to work better?
If you’re a fan of the 1975 movie Rocky, you probably recall that scene where the hulking, inarticulate boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) takes Adrian, the mousy, timid pet-shop clerk portrayed by Talia Shire, to an ice-skating rink and laments his own perceived lack of intelligence. “My ol’ man, who was never the sharpest, told me that I weren’t born with much of a brain, so I better use my body,” Rocky explains. That prompts Adrian to laugh. “My mother told me just the opposite,” she explains. “She said, ‘You weren’t born with much of a body, so you’d better develop your brain.’”
Of course, we all realize that is just needless self-deprecation. Many who’ve ever done a pushup or
jogged around the block probably buy the notion that if you exercise your muscles hard enough and often enough, you can build up your physique and end up looking pretty buff. Conversely, if you do nothing but lounge around on the couch watching the rest of the Rocky movies, your biceps, pectorals, glutes and other muscles will atrophy and weaken, leaving you looking like the “before” picture in one of those old Charles Atlas comic book advertisements. So Adrian would be fine if she just took an aerobic dance class.
But Rocky needs to do something besides pound a side of beef with his fists, too. As neuroscientists have discovered, in some ways your brain isn’t that much different from your muscles. It has an impressive ability to change and develop new capabilities, a characteristic called neuroplasticity. That means that you never need to feel stuck at a given level of mental fitness. And although there’s not always uniform agreement among scientists about the effectiveness of
specific brain training regimens, there is evidence that you can improve your concentration, memory and mental flexibility.
How Changeable Is Your Brain?
For years, the conventional wisdom among scientists was that you were pretty much stuck with the brain that you were born
with, and that if you suffered an injury such as a stroke that killed neurons, you would never get back the capabilities that you lost. Scientists also believed that the structure and function of your brain affected how you think and feel, and not the other way around.
But over the past several decades, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain actually has the ability to alter itself to meet challenges. For example, in a Harvard Medical School study described in a 2007 Time article, neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leon instructed a group of volunteers to play a five-finger piano exercise as fluidly as they could, while trying to keep to a metronome counting off 60 beats per minute. After two hours of practice, Pascual-Leon used a device to map how much of each pianist’s motor cortex —the areas of the brain’s frontal lobe that control movement—was being used to control the finger movements. He found that over a five-day period, the expanse of the motor cortex involved in that
activity gradually expanded, in the fashion that dandelions quickly spread over a lawn.
But Pascual-Leon wasn’t content just to demonstrate that the brain seemed to alter itself to better perform a physical action. He had a second group of volunteers merely think about playing the same piano exercise, imagining it in their heads. When they were tested, the results showed that they,
too, had an expansion of the same area in the motor cortex. Apparently, the brain could alter how its cells worked just by thinking.
Types of Brain Flexibility
It’s now believed that the brain can rearrange and change itself in many different ways. For example, there’s developmental plasticity, which is when a young person’s brain rapidly develops new neural networks and synapses, or connections. In fact, between the moment when you were born and age two or three, your number of synapses mushroomed from about 2,500 per neuron in your cerebral cortex to about 15,000 per neuron. That’s about twice as many as you have now. But it’s not that you got dumber as you got older. Instead, as you grew up into a teenager, your brain took in more and more new information, and the synapses that proved to be most useful actually
strengthened, while the other ones fell into disuse and eventually were eliminated, a process called synaptic pruning.
But that’s just the start. Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman has identified four other types of neuroplasticity.
Homologous area adaption: If a particular part of the brain is damaged early in a person’s life, the brain has the ability to shift around and perform those activities, often with the analogous spot in the other hemisphere of the brain. The downside: functions normally performed by the analogous area may suffer. For example, if a child has to shift the function of navigating physical space to a part of the brain that normally performs arithmetic, he or she is going to have a tougher time solving math problems.
Compensatory masquerade: This is when the brain actually figures out a different way to accomplish a task. If the part of the brain that controls a person’s sense of direction is damaged by injury, for example, he or she may develop a new method of navigating by recognizing landmarks, an activity that takes place in a different part of the brain.
Cross-modal reassignment: This is when the brain builds new inputs to a brain region where the normal routes don’t work. The brain of a person who’s been blind since birth, for example, may route tactile sensations to the visual cortex. That enables the latter area to create representations of the physical environment that are based upon touch, rather than sight. Experiments show that people who can see normally, in contrast, don’t use their visual cortex to process information from touching things.
Map expansion: This is the phenomenon that Pascual-Leon observed in his pianists. Basically, the brain can expand the area that it devotes to a particular activity. With regular practice, the brain will retain that enlargement.
Building a Better Mind
Since neuroscientists discovered that the brain is capable of changing, people have been hard at work trying to figure out ways to deliberately direct neuroplasticity, so that we can become smarter and more capable, or else stave off degenerative changes caused by diseases associated with aging.
In the latter area, they’ve made some promising discoveries. A study presented in 2009 by Mayo Clinic neuropsychiatrist Yonas Geda, for example, found that elderly people who read books, played games, used computers and did crafts such as pottery or quilting had a 30 to 50 percent lower risk of memory loss than those who didn’t do those activities. There’s also evidence that physical activity actually helps the brain to function better. A study published in 2012 by researchers from the University of South Florida and China’s
Fudan University found that elderly Chinese who practiced the slow, gentle movements of Tai Chi three times a week showed increases in brain volume and improvement in tests of memory and thinking, compared to a control group.
However, scientists have differing opinions about the value of brain training, a fast-growing commercial field in which puzzle-like games are used in an effort to boost mental
skills. A 2008 study by University of Maryland researchers found that young adults who played a brain-training game showed improvement in “fluid” intelligence, which includes the ability to solve novel problems, find connections, and get to the underlying significance of things. A study published in Nature in 2010 and a recently published review of studies on brain training in Developmental Psychology, however, concluded that such workouts helped people to perform the puzzles better, but didn’t necessarily result in improved reading or math ability. However, in a recent blog post for the website of Scientific American, New York University cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman pointed out that the same study did show that such training can help you to improve your working memory—that is, the ability to retain and manipulate information in your mind, while ignoring irrelevant distractions and intruding thoughts.
But if doing structured brain training doesn’t sound like something that you’d care to do, there are other ways to stimulate your brain. A study published recently in the journal PLoS ONE found that a group of adult subjects who watched short nature documentaries repeatedly over a six-month period actually did better on cognitive tests and measures of psychological health than counterparts who used a computerized brain-training program.
- Small Bird
- 1Small Bird
- "Dayan Guhong" speed cube
- "Perplexus Maze" puzzle ball
- "Perplexus Epic" puzzle ball
- Rubik's Cube
- 1"Perplexus Maze" puzzle ball
- 2"Dayan Guhong" speed cube
- 3Rubik's Cube
- 4"Perplexus Epic" puzzle ball
- Materials engineering
- Physics and astronomy
- Mathematical sciences
- 1Physics and astronomy
- 3Mathematical sciences
- 4Materials engineering
|Animal Brains||Popular Puzzles||Smart Majors|
Brain: The Complete Mind is both a practical owner's manual and a complete guide to the brain's development and function.
How to use your body to improve your mind.In the Brain Games episode “Use It or Lose It,” we learn that in some ways, your brain isn’t that much different from your muscles. It has an impressive ability to change and develop new capabilities, a characteristic called neuroplasticity. That means that you never need to feel stuck at a given level of mental fitness. Brain-training games have become increasingly popular, though there’s scientific controversy about their value. But it’s also been discovered that physical activity, the same thing that builds your muscles and cardiovascular fitness, can also have positive effects upon your brain health. Here are some ways to use your body to improve your mind.
Practice your breathing.
Researchers at Emory University medical school have discovered that experienced practitioners of Zen meditation, who focus upon their breathing as a way of being present in the moment, can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than those who’ve never meditated. Brain scans showed that the experienced meditators actually had better control of areas of the brain called the default mode network, where activity is seen during distractions, and were able to bring it back to a baseline level faster. So find a pillow to sit
on, or a nice straight-backed chair, and spend at least a few minutes each day trying to concentrate upon your breathing, to the exclusion of other thoughts. As the Mayo Clinic’s website advises: “Focus all attention on your breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.”
Try a new sport or type of physical exercise.
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey, author of the bestseller Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says that taking up a new activity that requires hand-eye coordination or graceful foot moves will put your brain’s cells through a workout as well. Pick something that’s complicated to do—dancing or martial arts, for example—instead of just a spin on the exercise bike.
Use workouts to boost your mood.
Numerous studies, dating back to the early 1980s, show that regular exercise can improve mood in people who suffer from mild to moderate depression, and that exercise may even provide some help those coping with severe depression. You don’t have to become a triathlete or climb mountains to get the benefits. A study published in 2005, for example, found that simply walking fast for 35 minutes each day, five times weekly—or alternatively, three 60-minute sessions—had a significant influence upon mild to moderate depression symptoms.