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Cognitive Fitness

Discussion in 'Community Off Topic' started by Eric "Herbie" Watson, Jul 21, 2014.

  1. Eric "Herbie" Watson

    Eric "Herbie" Watson Beloved Grand Eagle

    Winston Churchill was outspoken on the sacred rites of smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and during meals—and in the intervals in between. But he was also exceptionally active mentally. As historians have duly noted, Churchill went on to live until 90. That speaks volumes for the information that is now coming to light about how the brain can affect the body.

    Of course, few executives would be willing to follow Churchill’s example in taking such poor care of their physical health. As life expectancy continues to rise, people are doing more and more to ensure that their lives, if long, are going to be healthy. The American Heart Association now recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. Not surprisingly, most large companies offer health club memberships as a perk; many provide gyms on-site. Find yourself on the road, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a fitness center in your hotel. You may even have to get in line to use the equipment.

    Until recently, however, there seemed to be no guidelines for active efforts you could make to staymentally healthy. There were no brain exercises—no mental push-ups—you could do to stave off the loss of memory and analytic acuity that comes as you grow older. In the worst-case scenario, you could end up with Alzheimer’s disease, for which there are no proven treatments.

    But a concentrated commitment of resources by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Library of Congress during the 1990s—which the White House proclaimed the “decade of the brain” to heighten public awareness of the need for neuroscience research—yielded a broad front of research and training that has upended some deeply held beliefs about the brain. One such belief is that the brain necessarily diminishes with age. It turns out that neurons, the basic cells that allow information transfer to support the brain’s computing power, donot have to die off as we get older. In fact, a number of regions of the brain important to functions such as motor behavior and memory can actually expand their complement of neurons as we age. This process, called neurogenesis, used to be unthinkable in mainstream neuroscience.

    What does all this have to do with you? The process of neurogenesis is profoundly affected by the way you live your life. The brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities can all be strengthened and improved through your experiences and interactions with your environment. The health of your brain isn’t just the product of negative and positive childhood experiences and genetic inheritance; it reflects your adult choices and experiences as well. That’s extremely good news. Sigmund Freud and those who followed him both in the neurological sciences and in the psychoanalytic tradition thought for years that brain development ceased in childhood or early adolescence. Although these periods do hold the greatest potential for neural development, we now know there is a regimen you can follow to retain and even build mental capacity as you age.

    Brain-imaging studies indicate, for example, that acquired expertise in areas as diverse as playing a cello, juggling, speaking a foreign language, and driving a taxicab expands and makes more communicative the neural systems in the parts of the brain responsible for motor control and spatial navigation. In other words, you can make physical changes in your brain by learning new skills. You can even make changes in how your brain functions by exercising conscious will. In a recent experiment using real-time brain imaging, scientists demonstrated that individuals learned to mitigate the sensation of pain by consciously controlling the observable activity of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain involved in pain processing. In theory, therefore, it’s possible for people to alleviate pain through neurofeedback, without drugs.

    These advances in neuroscience suggest that there is no reason why your brain at 60 can’t be as competent as it was at 25. That would not have been news to thinkers such as Socrates, Copernicus, and Galileo, who were all still at the peak of their intellectual powers in their sixties and seventies. Nor would it surprise business leaders such as Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffett, and Sumner Redstone. These icons and others like them have intuitively understood that the brain’s alertness is the result of what we call cognitive fitness—a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises. The more cognitively fit you are, the better you will be able to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will allow you to be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behaviors and forecast their outcomes in order to realize your goals. You can become the kind of person your company values most. Perhaps more important, you can delay senescence for years and even enjoy a second career.

    Exercising Your Brain: A Personal Program
    Because the brain is an interactive system, any activities that stimulate one part of it can easily stimulate other parts. Therefore, our cognitive fitness categories need to be understood as approximations—this is particularly the case with hemispherically focused activity. Although some stimuli may initially create greater activations in, say, the right hemisphere, both hemispheres will ultimately be involved in the process of mastering new challenges. While there is much to learn about the intricacies of cognitive enhancement, we believe that the following exercises are a good selection.

    Manage by walking about.

    Leave the executive dining room and drop by the company cafeteria, production floor, or loading docks. This could put you in unfamiliar territory, which is a good thing for broadening your perspective. What’s more, the very act of walking and moving about invigorates your brain. That’s why when you have a mental block on some problem you are solving, getting up and changing your environment can lead to an “aha” moment.

    Read funny books.

    Humor promotes insight and enhances our health—even the immune system seems to love a good joke, as it is strengthened by the use of humor and the perspective it offers.

    Play games.

    Activities like bridge, chess, sudoku, and the New York Times crossword puzzle all provide good neural workouts. There are ever more possibilities online, too, with the growing popularity of role-playing games. Try new games that challenge your left hemisphere, such as pool.

    Act out.

    At its best, play is discovery—and what you discover through improvisation is your inner actor, who can try on many roles. (Believe it or not, a number of outstanding comedians started their careers as accountants.) You will be surprised to see that such play expands your behavioral repertoire—your brain has immense stored potential for enhancing your personality and leadership capacities. You can even experiment in meetings. Trying out different ways of interacting with colleagues, for example, increases cognitive fitness.

    Find what you’re not learning.

    If you’re like most executives, you tend to ask very similar questions day to day in your professional and personal lives. So listen to yourself and figure out what you don’t seek. Asking a promising young subordinate what she thinks is a good place to start. Or vary your reading list. If you normally throw yourself into history and biography, try literary fiction; if it’s mostly thrillers, try science.

    Get the most out of business trips.

    Travel provides excellent opportunities for jolting your brain. Your time investment need not be too intensive. Visit a museum; read a novel set in the city you are visiting; devote a couple of hours to talking with locals around town. These activities not only increase your cultural IQ—they are also a good form of cognitive exercise.

    Take notes—and then go back and read them.

    One of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, Richard Branson, carries a bound book with blank pages wherever he goes. Every time he sees or hears something interesting and new, he jots it down. He says that many of these ideas have become new businesses.

    Try new technologies.

    Playing with that new touch screen and downloading that goofy video from YouTube on your iGadget to display on your megascreen TV activates innumerable brain channels linking your auditory, visual, and tactile networks with your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex. Talking about it and sharing your emotional energy with your friends will extend the activity throughout the brain. Even your brain stem, which keeps you wakeful and engaged, will get a workout.

    Learn a new language or instrument.

    Studying a new language puts you at the pinnacle of mental athleticism. Learning a musical instrument or really playing that old clarinet in the closet gives your brain a big boost, too. Take lessons.

    Exercise, exercise, exercise.

    Your brain is not an island—it is part of a system that benefits from cardiovascular exercise, good diet, and proper sleep habits. One of the most consistently identified defenses against developing Alzheimer’s disease is a good exercise regimen. Very specific beneficial biochemical changes, such as increases in endorphins and cortisol, result from both cardiovascular and strength training. Those benefits literally flow through your blood vessels and reach your muscles, your joints, your bones, and, yes, your brain.

    These steps are by no means exhaustive. They overlap and reinforce one another. Together they capture, we believe, some of the key opportunities for maintaining an engaged, creative brain.



    Author - Roderick Gilkey is an associate professor of organization and management at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta and an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine.

    Author - Clint Kilts is the Dr. Paul Janssen Professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

     

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