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The effects of yoga on cortical thickness

10 Aug

A paper in the journal Psychiatry, “The Impacts of Yoga On Cortical Thickness, Neural Connectivity and Cognitive Function in Early Psychosis: Preliminary Results From a Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial.” From the abstract:


A total of 140 women were recruited and randomized into three groups. 95 completed the study, and 115 were included for cognitive data analysis. For imaging data, 42 participants were used for cortical thickness analyses; and 60 were included for neural connectivity analyses. Yoga group demonstrated significant improvements in working memory, verbal acquisition and attention (P=.01). Cortical thickness increased in the postcentral gyrus (P<.01); connectivity between PCC and bilateral inferior parietal gyrus increased after yoga intervention (P<.005).

Yoga has been found to be effective for memory and attention in early psychotic patients. The increases of thickness and neural connectivity indicate the possible neural mechanisms underlying the improvements of cognition.”


“High impact running improves learning.”

4 Apr

A paper from 2006. Here is the abstract:

“Regular physical exercise improves cognitive functions and lowers the risk for age-related cognitive decline. Since little is known about the nature and the timing of the underlying mechanisms, we probed whether exercise also has immediate beneficial effects on cognition. Learning performance was assessed directly after high impact anaerobic sprints, low impact aerobic running, or a period of rest in 27 healthy subjects in a randomized cross-over design. Dependent variables comprised learning speed as well as immediate (1 week) and long-term (>8 months) overall success in acquiring a novel vocabulary. Peripheral levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine) were assessed prior to and after the interventions as well as after learning. We found that vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise as compared to the other two conditions. This condition also elicited the strongest increases in BDNF and catecholamine levels. More sustained BDNF levels during learning after intense exercise were related to better short-term learning success, whereas absolute dopamine and epinephrine levels were related to better intermediate (dopamine) and long-term (epinephrine) retentions of the novel vocabulary. Thus, BDNF and two of the catecholamines seem to be mediators by which physical exercise improves learning.”


Stroop test to improve running?

28 Mar

University of Houston cross-country coach, Steve Magness, uses the Stroop test to train his athletes for mental focus:

“While Magness—who once ticked off a 4:01 mile himself—coaches the fundamentals as good as anyone, he goes beyond traditional physiological training strategies to squeeze every ounce of performance out of his athletes. His secret: focusing on the mind.”

To experience the Stroop Test try reading the words below out loud:


Kawashima uses Stroop performance as an outcome measure in his “Train Your Brain” program.

Magness also makes an interesting observation about meditation:

‘“I really liked the idea of mindfulness-based meditation because I thought it could quickly transition an athlete from the stress of a workout to the recovery phase,” Magness says. “But I soon learned meditation takes a lot of practice, and for beginners, meditation can be stressful in and of itself.”

Magness started experimenting with other ways to facilitate recovery, like calming and relaxing music, but discovered what was most helpful—based on measuring heart rate variability, a common indicator of recovery—was creating a laid back social environment immediately after hard workouts. “Going from a high-stress workout to a desensitized period of just joking around together decreases tension way faster than anything else we’ve tried,” says Magness. “So now, it has kind of become part of our program to force fun social interactions after intense workouts.”’

More evidence against brain games

31 Dec

A good piece in Science Daily:

“Computerized brain games that are advertised as a way to help boost intelligence and prevent dementia will be popular Christmas gifts this year. But there’s little scientific evidence to support these industry claims, experts say.”

There are things you can do to improve your memory and reduce your risk of dementia. A good opportunity to plug my book:



Richard Wiseman on self-help

9 Nov

Gizmodo takes aim at Lumosity

28 Oct

Kate Knibbs at Gizmodo reports:

“Recently, a coalition of nearly 70 researchers spoke against brain games like Lumosity, signing a letter of consensus posted by the Stanford Longevity Center that lambasted the brain training community for promising a kind of mind power boost that just isn’t provable.”

The letter can be found here. This is the concluding paragraph:

“In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”


Making and keeping neurons

24 Oct

A study in Current Directions in Psychological Science tells us “The Adult Brain Makes New Neurons, and Effortful Learning Keeps Them Alive.” Here is the abstract:

“The brain continues to produce new neurons throughout life. For instance, the hippocampus (a brain region necessary for select learning processes) produces thousands of new neurons each day. However, a significant number of them die and do so within just a few weeks of their birth. Laboratory animals that are trained to learn a new skill between one and two weeks after the new cells are generated retain most cells that would have otherwise died. The types of skills that keep new cells alive are not limited to those that depend on the hippocampus but rather include those that are effortful to learn, requiring more training trials or time spent training. Importantly, training alone is not sufficient to increase cell survival; animals that are trained but do not learn do not retain more cells than animals that are not trained. Therefore, learning increases the survival of newly generated cells in the hippocampus as long as the learning experience is new, effortful, and successful. Once rescued, the vast majority of these cells differentiate into neurons, thereby forming synapses and generating action potentials as they become incorporated into the existing architecture and functional circuitry of the adult brain.”

Note the sentence: “learning increases the survival of newly generated cells in the hippocampus as long as the learning experience is new, effortful, and successful. ” So there’s no excuse, it’s time to take up a challenging learning project.

Here is the paper’s author, Tracey Shors, speaking on adult neurogenesis:

Adaptive intelligence of urban raccoons

21 Oct

Jude Isabella writes about how raccoons have adapted to living in the city:

“Unlike many animals, raccoons “flourished rather than receded in the face of human expansion,” Pettit points out in an article for the American Psychological Association.1 Part of the reason for their success may be that the urban environment has contributed to their intelligence. In humans, the effect is well known. Educational psychologist Walkiria Fontes has compared the cognitive abilities of rural and urban children on two metrics: crystallized intelligence, which is associated with experience, and fluid intelligence, which is the ability to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. She found that urban rich kids have the edge with both kinds of intelligence. But even poor urban students scored better than poor rural students in fluid intelligence.

City raccoons also appear smarter than their rural counterparts. Suzanne MacDonald, a comparative psychologist who studies raccoon behavior at York University in Toronto, has compared the problem-solving skills of rural and city raccoons. The result? Urbanites trump their country cousins in both intelligence and ability.”

So the effects of cognitive enhancement may not be unique to humans!

Chinese techniques for cognitive enhancement

30 May

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at last weeks Associaiton for Psychological Science meeting was titled “Educational Neuroscience in China: Examination of Culture-Specific Learning Tools/Activities.” The session was chaired by  Yi Hu of the East China Normal University

Here is a brief description from the program:

“The symposium will focus on the neuroscience studies of long-history learning tools and activities specific to the Chinese culture (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, and mnemonics). Our studies provide evidence for explaining the cognitive processing differences between Chinese and Western cultures in an educational context.”

Here is a more detailed description:

“In Chinese educational context, the long-history learning tools/activities (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, mnemonic) are now learned and practiced by most children or students with the aim to improve their basic skills and therefore academic performance. There are four presentations in current symposium. The first is on the calculation with abacus and corresponding mental calculation. Before the advent of computer, the Chinese were accustomed to use the tool of abacus, especially in calculating the arithmetical operations in their daily life. The using of abacus and the related mental calculation are supposed to improve the memory abilities and academic mathematic performance. In the paradigms of expert-novice and expertise development, we explored the effects of the using of the tool on cognitive processing and neural activations through the classic experimental tasks (e.g., stroop task) and the brain image techniques (e.g., fMRI, ERP). The second presentation is on the game of Go. It plays by two opponents with the purpose of enclosure of larger space than the opposition. The game is supposed to improve the holistic cognitive processing that is typically associated with the Chinese. Several experiments were then manipulated to examine the holistic processing in playing Go. Furthermore, the hyperscanning technique of NIRS was used to explore two categories of playing activities in Go, namely making a move by oneself and waiting the move by the opponent. The technique allows us to reproduce the competition context capturing the dynamic cognitive processes per se in Go. The third presentation is on the writing system. Chinese and English represent very different writing systems that vary significantly in how graphemic symbols is mapped onto spoken language, yet both writing systems activate similar brain circuits with some variations. Chinese as a logographic writing system represents morphosyllabic information while English as an alphabetic one represents phonemic information. Our research aims to compare universal features in these writing systems and analyze how literacy education changes brain function and anatomy and its implications for reading instruction based on evidence–based strategies. The last presentation is on the mnemonics. Some memorists in China demonstrated the exceptional short-term memory (e.g., Feng Wang, the champion in World Memory Championship 2010 and 2011) or the largest long-term memory (e.g., Chao Lu, the holder of Guiness World Record for reciting 67,890 digits in pi). Although they have reported some mnemonics, the related neural mechanisms remained unknown. We tested their material-specific mnemonics (i.e., imagery, generate stories, method of loci) through the fMRI and ERP. Furthermore, we trained some developing children on the mnemonics and observed the intentionally targeted cognitive processing. In sum, the symposium will discuss the effect of the culture-specific learning tools/activities in China. The corresponding empirical studies provide evidences for explaining the cognitive processing differences between the Chinese and the Westerns in educational context.”

I was struck by the description of Chinese mnemonic systems for memorizing digits. In the two most widely used Western systems (the Major System and the Domonic System) numbers are converted into letters and then memorable words or names are constructed. Since Chinese is character based, strings of numbers are directly converted into words. It seemed to me that the Chinese system would be harder to learn, but, once learned would be faster and more efficient.

As the result of hearing these talks I intend to learn how to use an abacus and play Go.

Below is a promotional video I found for an Indian program that teaches abacus to children. Notice that some of the kids have internalized the abacus and make their calculations mentally.



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Brain workout software?

12 Mar

A good article in yesterday’s New York Times raises questions about both the cost and effectiveness of brain workout software.

Instead of investing in expensive brain training programs, you would be much better off adopting a challenging learning project, such as studying a foreign language, that will yield benefits in its own right and, also, keep you motivated.

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