Brain Fitness Home Workout

From the Harvard Business Review, November of 2007. A brain fitness home workout primer.

"Until recently, however, there seemed to be no guidelines for active efforts you could make to stay mentally 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, do not 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

So how can you become cognitively fit? Drawing selectively from the rapidly expanding body of neuroscience research as well as from well-established research in psychology and other mental health fields, we have identified four steps you can take.

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.

The four tools that Gilkey and Kilts recommend for brain fitness home workout?

Work hard at Play.

Seek Novelty.

Use Experience to Grow Your Brain

Search for Patterns."

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