Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Brain Exercise Works

Most people now have been told that mental activity is good for the brain. I have even posted information that it can build “cognitive reserve” that can delay or reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, it would be no surprise if popularity increased for mentally stimulating games like crossword puzzles, Sudoko, bridge, dominoes, chess, and the like.

In addition to these traditional games, another form of mental stimulation is to learn mnemonic techniques, such as creating associations with mental images, acrostics, acronyms, the method of loci, mental imaging of peg-words, and the like, which I explain in my books, Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort. While these techniques are task specific, mastering them can produce benefits that last beyond the time when you are using these mnemonics. For example, when I was in high school, I used to give memory demonstrations using a well-known image-word peg system. Even when I quit doing that, my general capacity for remembering remained better than before because my brain had been trained to be more agile and imaginative in generating images that I could use in making memory associations. My mind was also probably more disciplined.

The scientific basis for such claims is solid. Numerous research reports confirm that even older people can improve their memory skills with instruction and practice.[1] Even with traditional memory training, research has shown that by teaching people multiple strategies, the training benefit can be seen immediately, can endure for up to five years, and even transfer to everyday learning tasks.

The scientific explanation is straightforward. When the brain is challenged to solve problems and enhance memory capability, the neurons have to grow new contact points among neurons. This process requires new protein synthesis, growth of neuron terminals, and boosting of neurotransmitter systems. In other words, mental challenge changes the brain physically. Through training, you can sculpt a more alert, focused, and smarter brain.

As a result of this understanding, a host of mental training options have become available. The hype often seems to sound like snake oil, but some training programs are documentably effective. For example, we know from published research that I have described before that working memory capacity can be extended by formal training and that IQ increases as a result.

A new emphasis seems to be emerging to create training platforms that are cost effective, self-administered, flexible, and easily distributed to wide segments of population. CD, audiotape, and web-based approaches can reduce the need for trainers who work one-on-one or with small groups. The web-based training seems the most feasible, except for the current crop of elderly, many of whom do not use the Internet.

Effective training need not be specifically address memory. Non-specific mental stimulation can improve memory capability, because whatever affects the brain affects the brain’s ability to remember things. Especially promising are training programs that train people to be more attentive, to have more positive attitudes about their memory ability, reduce anxiety and stress, and require learners to apply memory techniques to everyday mental tasks.1 When benefits from memory training persist after the training, researchers assume it is because the trainees are still using the techniques they have learned. Method-of-loci and peg-word systems are extremely powerful, but it is hard to get people to create new habits of thinking and memorization. Even so, memory training produces other lasting effects that benefit memory irrespective of the explicit use of techniques. One of these effects is actual re-wiring of the brain, which intense learning is known to produce.

Many sites on the Web focus on teaching people about mental fitness in general, which as I just said, has collateral benefit on memory capability. One site I recommend, and have posted to, is Sharp Brains (http://sharpbrains.com/). Among the better known Web training programs are Brainware Safari and Lumosity (I have no conflict of interest here). Using “brain fitness” as search words in Google or Bing will identify many other sites that I am not familiar with.

Recently, a new three-dimensional videogame system, “NeuroRacer” that reportedly works even for older adults has been developed at the University of California, San Francisco.[2] In this game, a user navigates a race car along a winding track and hits a button on a controller whenever a green circle appears, making the response as quickly as possible. This task forces concentration and trains the brain to switch operations rapidly and accurately.

In a recently published test of the NeuroRacer’s effects on older adults, people aged 60 to 85 were trained on the game for 12 hours, spread over a month. Without training, the researchers found a clear age-related decline in performance in the game. After training on the game, the seniors performed on the game better than untrained 20-year olds, and the benefit lasted at least six months.

Popular press reports and numerous blogs of this study have attributed the benefit to the value of multi-tasking. I contend that multi-tasking is harmful for memory and, moreover, that the benefit of NeuroRacer is not multi-tasking training as such but rather the training it provides for attentiveness and executive control.  It is perhaps not surprising that such good effects were seen in older folks. A typical problem in aging is a loss in ability to focus, and thus training that increases attentiveness would be likely to have conspicuously beneficial effects.



[1] Rebok, G. W., Carlson, M. c., and Langaum, J. B. S. (2007). Training and maintaining memory abilities in health older adults: traditional and novel approaches. J. Gerontology. 62B (Special Issue): 53-61.

[2] Anguera, J. A. et al. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature 501: 97-101.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Thinking Is the Best Way to Memorize

People frequently ask me “What’s the best way to improve my memory? (or … my child’s memory? … my elderly parent’s memory?). The answer most commonly given is to use memory aids, that is, mnemonic devices such as associating mental images of new information with images of already learned images that serve as pegs on which to hang new information. I explain these devices in great detail in both of my books, “Memory Power 101” and “Better Grades, Less Effort.”

Mnemonics are essential if you want to become a “memory athlete” and show off prodigious feats of memory. After you have used such mnemonics for a while, some of the benefit persists long after you quit using such mnemonics because the brain has been trained to be more facile and imaginative in making associations.

But for real-world practicality, it is hard to beat the usefulness of thinking about what you are trying to remember. Thinking unifies the essential elements of learning, which I view as follows:

Knowledge Understanding Creative Insight

When people try to acquire knowledge, they of course must remember it, which they usually attempt by mentally repeating it again and again. This rote process is the least effective way to remember. When you think about what you are trying to remember, your efforts to understand it actually constitute rehearsal in meaningful ways. Attempts to understand include associating and cross checking the new with your understanding of what you already know, thinking about what else might be relevant, reflecting on the merits of the new information, and self-examination of your level of understanding. Then, as understanding is gained, you become poised for creative insight, making application of the new information for your own needs and purposes. In the process, you might even think of things about the new information that others have not discerned. This process automatically creates mental associations that not only cement the new information in memory but also integrate it with all the things you already know as well as perhaps even generating ideas that nobody else has thought of.


The biological basis behind this thinking process of memory rehearsal is now being confirmed. The original basis of the idea comes from suggestion some 20 years ago that multiple areas of brain participate in formation of memory.[1] Thinking engages multiple areas of brain and, when performed on what you are trying to remember, strengthens the memory representation in the brain areas that are creating the engram.

Some recent support for multiple-area formation of memory includes a recent brain-scan study of male and female college students during consolidation of a recent fear-induced experience revealed increased activity in multiple brain areas (amygdala, parahippocampus, insula, thalamus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex) during a resting state lasting 10 minutes immediately after the conditioning.[2] “Rest” occurred immediately after responding to the fear-inducing stimulus and probably involved a process of reflection on the learning task or an equivalent subconscious process.

Decreased activity occurred in the striatum (caudate, putamen). This decrease may have occurred because this area of brain includes the positive reinforcement (reward) system, and fear conditioning is aversive, not rewarding.

I should add that the extensiveness of brain areas participating in thinking and its associated memory consolidation was surely under-estimated. MRI brain scans measure metabolism, which is not a direct index of the nerve impulse signaling required for processing learning events.



[1] Squire, L. R. (1992) Declarative and non-declarative memory: multiple brain systems supporting learning and memory. J. Cognitive Neuroscience. 4 (3):232-243 Posted Online December 13, 2007.(doi:10.1162/jocn.1992.4.3.232)
[2] Feng, T., Feng. P., and Chen, Z. (2013). Altered resting-state brain activity at functional MRI during automatic memory consolidation of fear conditioning. Brain Res. 2013 Jul 26;1523:59-67. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2013.05.039