Great Course: Optimizing Brain Fitness

Join us for this 12 part series that increases the health of your brain. Watch each section with a discussion to follow. Led by activities assistant Mariann the first and third Thursdays of the month in the Den.

…You can increase the power of your brain through your own effort. The brain’s ability to change in response to experience—called plasticity—is the key to understanding the brain’s development. The good news is that no matter how old you are, you can still take an active part in influencing brain plasticity. The brain is dependent on your experiences and continues to evolve throughout your lifespan.

In order to improve your brain, it’s necessary to understand how it works. In this course you will learn how the brain is organized, how it develops, and how messages are transmitted through the brain’s electrochemical pathways. Neuroscientists like to say that “cells that fire together wire together.” Think of brain circuits like friendships: Those that are maintained and enriched will endure, while those that are neglected disappear.

Enriched environments are the key to optimal brain development. Laboratory animals provided with toys, companions, and more spacious living conditions grow additional brain cells. They also get smarter and perform better on behavioral tests such as wending their way through mazes. In humans, sensory and social deprivation early in life leads to decreases in intelligence, emotional health, and adaptation. But this dependence on the richness of environmental stimulation is not limited to early development. At every moment, your activities and your thoughts are modifying your brain. Intelligence is not something like eye color that you’re born with and cannot change—it is a dynamic process that can be favorably influenced by choices you make.

Proper diet, exercise, and sleep are critical for optimal brain functioning. In general, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. By cutting down on empty calories in your diet, you can avoid obesity, which is now recognized as a risk factor for late-life dementia and other cognitive deficits. Research shows that regular exercise brings about positive changes in the brain function of children as well as adults. Simple, straightforward measures to improve sleep can also lead to big dividends at every age. More sleep, for instance, is characteristic of high-achieving students. Power naps can also help to enhance memory consolidation and cognitive performance.

Attention—also referred to as focus and concentration—must be rock solid in order to marshal the effort needed to improve your brain’s performance. Attention in the mental sphere is the equivalent of endurance in the physical sphere. Just as an athlete cannot perform optimally without endurance, you cannot expect to achieve a superpower brain without being able to laser focus your mental energies. In order to do this, you must successfully manage 2 key factors in our current culture: distraction and multitasking. When you focus your attention on something, you have an easier time learning it and are more likely to remember it. The more you learn and the better you remember it, the greater your power to retrieve and use that information.

But if any piece of information can be instantly retrieved via a Google search, why bother to remember it? Because the act of remembering something facilitates the activation and retention of circuits within the brain that contribute to the brain’s optimal functioning. Overreliance on electronic information aids can result in a disuse atrophy of your memory powers, but this atrophy can be overcome by deliberate efforts to improve memory. You’ll learn how to enlist all of your senses in exercises and techniques that can enhance brain function in visual imagery, imagination, and longterm memory.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, is the key to the most important mental operation carried out by the human brain: manipulating stored information. By improving your working memory, you can increase your intelligence as measured by standardized tests, along with such indirect measurements of intelligence as occupational achievement and creativity. Deliberate practice is the key to improving performance and creativity in all areas of human endeavor, including work and play.

Modern technology can be distracting, but it can be used to improve brain function. Think of technological aids as coextensions of your brain, capable of acting as brain boosters. A laptop computer, for instance, functions as a powerful and refined electronic extension of brain assistants dating back to the earliest writing instruments. Video games, wisely used, can help you notice more, concentrate better, respond more quickly, and acquire specific real-world skills.

By challenging your brain to learn new information throughout your life, you build up cognitive reserve. This is analogous to monetary reserve: The more you have accumulated over your lifetime, the less susceptible you will be to deficits in your later years. In general, the more education and knowledge people acquire over their lifetime, the less likely they are in their later years to be diagnosed with dementia. In this practical course, you’ll learn what steps you can take in your own life to enhance your brain function.