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Why, to improve memory, we need to think of the brain as a system

Posted Jan 24 2013 4:26pm

(Editor’s Note: every month we host an online Q&A with participants in the e-course How To Be Your Own Brain Fitness Coach . This is the lightly edited and anonymized transcript from the January Q&A session; the February Q&A will take place on Tuesday, February 12th)

2:02
OK, ready to go! Happy 2013 again. You can start writing your questions and comments in the box at the bottom, and hit Send.

2:04
Question 
Which activities or games or websites do you recommend to improve memory?

2:05

Faculty Answer
Well, that is an impossible question to answer properly without talking specifics…have you watched the recorded lectures already?

2:06
I say that for 2 reasons: 1) to improve memory, one also has to consider other brain functions such as attention and managing stress; 2) and take into account a variety of lifestyle options before jumping to “websites”

2:07
We discuss these topics in depth in the first 2 sessions. In session 3 we survey a range of tools/ websites/ resources…

2:08
Can you be a bit more specific about what you are looking for?

2:08
Question 
Not all of them. I’m right at the beginning and I realize you have many resources to offer. Yes, your recommendations are great and yes I like your suggestion to look at other ways to improve memory before jumping into websites.

2:10

Faculty Answer

Understood. Think of the brain as a system. As a car. More complex that just “memory.” The first lectures explains the basics of the system, so you know how different factors play a role. Later we review different tools and how to personalize them.

2:10
Question 
How to improve attention might be a good place to start?

2:12
Faculty Answer

Yes. But you’ll notice we also talk a lot about stress and emotions, because often they are a bottleneck for attention and for memory. And there are other executive functions to consider and enhance.

2:12
Question 
Is there any new research, ideas or activities that you have recently discovered that are not in your program?

2:13
Faculty Answer

We track everything new so the answer is yes. But nothing that would substantially change the course as it is now.

2:14
I see 9 other people are in this Q&A, so please add your comments and questions by writing them in the bottom box and clicking on Send.

2:14
Question 
Thank you.

2:15
Faculty Answer

You’re welcome. I think watching the first 2 sessions will give you a much better sense on how to approach the question “how to improve memory”

2:16
Question 
Yes, will do. Lots to absorb and I look forward to it.

2:17
Faculty Answer

Happy to answer any specific question/ doubt you have now. For general/ open questions, I think the course sessions are a much better place to start.

2:17
Question 
Do you think it’s possible to prevent Alzheimer’s?

2:20
Faculty Answer

Great question. It is clear now that 1) you can’t prevent AD pathology (plaques and tangles in the brain), BUT 2) you can delay the onset of AD symptoms by a number of years. Which is the real outcome we all want, because doing so is what compresses the potential morbidity at the end of our lives, making a huge difference for individuals and families. This is why we talk so much about cognitive reserve in the course — the reserve that helps us withstand the effects of the pathology.

2:20
Question 
Is there any specific recommendations to improve decision making? and also recommendations to eliminate confusion that comes from environmental stimuli?

2:23
Faculty Answer

Great questions — they are related. Yes, there re recommendations and tools to improve information processing (your second question) and decision-making. In the course we talk about how working memory (WM) and stress/ emotions impact decision-making, so anything that enhances WM and stress regulation tends to benefit decision-making

2:24
In sessions 2 and 3 we discuss those options in depth. Do you have any specific question or doubt?

2:27
Going back to the car analogy — there is no one “magic pill” to maintain/ optimize car functioning, but a variety of guidelines to follow. Same with our brain functioning/ decision-making/ info processing — we better incorporate both the general “pillars” discussed in session 2 and the more targeted tools surveyed in lecture 3. How to prioritize? Each of us has different starting points and objectives, so in lecture 4 we discuss how to personalize, how to prioritize what may be the “low hanging fruit”

2:27
Question 
I’m recovering from an infectious illness that, I’m sure, has partially messed up my brain’s (& body’s) function (“chronic fatigue syndrome”, for the last 4 years). Once I get it killed off, beyond the foundational truths of excellent sleep hygiene, moderate and regular aerobic exercise, brain-and-body healthy foods, managing stress and good social interactions, what else can I do to best rehabilitate it and “get it back into fighting shape”? PositScience.com courses, etc. I’m interested in any suggestions you might have. :)

2:32
Faculty Answer

This course is not designed to offer clinical/ rehab advice, I’d suggest your doctor (or even better, a neuropsychologist if you have access to one) is the best person to identify and monitor potential cognitive deficits and how to best address them. Yes, cognitive training would make a lot of sense as part of the whole mix, but what particular domain/ program is not clear — no program covers everything.

Having said that, the general recommendations discussed in the course would essentially help you accelerate recovery. But I insist, you need a doctor or neuropysh (or perhaps OT) to better target options and even to monitor side-effects of medications.

2:32
Question 
I see you suggest some tools such as websites, biofeedback and books. I have used some of these tools; however I am a little confused with which would be the best way to start or what tool so I do not get overwhelmed with to many things at the same time

2:34
Faculty Answer

That is a very common problem, given all the noise out there. I suggest you first watch the four lectures in the course — then it will become clear where to start. What lectures have you watched so far?

2:34
Question 
Separate question: what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned recently related to our topic that you think would be fun and interesting for us to know? :)

2:35
Faculty Answer

Only yesterday I was talking to a professor at Harvard and discussing how poorly brain science is being translated into education and health programs and practices. So, the fun part is that we have a lot of stimulating work ahead :-)

2:37
Another interesting thread of research is the importance of bilingual education — speaking several languages for decades helps develop and maintain decision-making and executive functions over time, given the additional mental workout involved in selecting the right words in the right language.

There are many other interesting areas!

2:37
Question 
I have watched up to session III part 1

2:39
Faculty Answer

Super — so what comes next in session III and IV is precisely how to select the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that may most sense for you.

2:39
Question 
John Ratey (MD) & John Medina would agree with you! :)

2:40
Faculty Answer

I think we’d agree on 90% on things and disagree on 10%…btw, their books are excellent too.

2:40
Question 
I read that dancing is also a great brain exerciser, learning new steps, body rhythm and music combined.

2:41
Faculty Answer

Yes. Dancing (especially couple dancing, where you have to learn and practice complex steps) is a great way to combine the physical and mental exercise pillars we discuss. Now, it is important to understand those pillars, and why/ how they are complementary, so we can incorporate them in ways meaningful to us. Dancing may be it, or not.

2:42
Question 
Besides SharpBrains, what are some of your favorite sources of information that might be help us to be self-empowered students of neuroscience? I became very interested in the subject about 5 years ago — it’s fascinating.

2:43
Faculty Answer

I’d say going straight to the published science. Any time you see an interesting news article, try to locate the scientific study and actually read it — these days many studies are free via open journals or via researchers’ websites.

2:44
And many studies cover specific technologies/ products, so you could read the science and experiment with the tech/ product at the same time.

2:45
Now, I’d suggest following the framework in the jigsaw puzzle to experiment in a relevant way…

2:47
Many scientists have also published good popular science books — it depends on what your specific interest is. Perhaps you can invest in a Kindle or similar e-reader to access many books at good rates, or become a regular patron at your library

2:47
We have 10 minutes left. Any other question/ comment/ doubt?

2:51
Question 
Do you know of any especially good online forums or blogs relating to neuroscience? I’d like to know where to go to plug into a community of people who love this stuff, but who are knowledgeable and stick to the science, such as it is.

2:53
Faculty Answer

There are many great science blogs, a number of which cover brain topics. But they have migrated so many times, from scienceblogs to nature to the guardian and others…that, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t suggest one specific place to start. We used to run a “blog carnival” called Encephalon with many great bloggers. That reminds me: a good blog is Mind Hacks

2:53
Question 
I have followed a healthy lifestyle; exercising, learning a new language, eating healthy and going to college, etc. However, I notice that me Cognitive abilities are still very poor. I have trouble with executive functioning, memory, attention, etc. Is it [possible that they can only improve with cognitive training tools?

2:56
Faculty Answer

Yes, that is possible, but other things may be going on — many medical conditions (and medicaments too) have negative cognitive side effects. So you should reflect on when you started feeling that way and contact your medical provider to see if something else ay be going on

2:56
Time for one last question!

2:58
Question 
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and Happy New Year!

2:58
Faculty Answer

OK, bye everyone! Enjoy the lectures and activities!

2:58
Question 
Thanks!

2:58
Question 
Not a question, but a comment: thank you so much for putting this course together and for what you are doing with SharpBrains. It’s a genuine force for good in the world, and I’m grateful. I wish you the best in your personal and professional life! :)

2:59
Faculty Answer

Thank you for the kind words :-)

We try our best!

 

–> To learn more about the e-course and register: click on   How To Be Your Own Brain Fitness Coach

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