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Neal Cohen, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and SharpBrains Head Brain Fitness Coach joins Craig to how mental exercise and stress management can improve human behavior and performance.

What is brain fitness?

Brain Fitness is the general state of a good, sharp brain and mind, especially as the result of mental and physical exercise, stress management and proper nutrition. Much like physical muscles, “mental muscles” can be strengthened to improve memory, focus and decision-making skills among others, as well as help delay the onset of age-related dementias such as Alzheimer’s.

Why has this become such a talked-about trend?

The trend has emerged because the science is now available to test and assess the effects of brain training, including: fMRI and neuroimaging; biofeedback for emotional regulation using “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV); and a growing body of clinical evidence. Just like the fitness revolution 30 years ago when people realized how much physical exercise could impact their bodies, improve their energy levels and increase their lifespan, people are now understanding that they can significantly impact their minds with brain exercise. And they are achieving the same results: a more acute and active mind that is lasting them later into life.

How does exercising your brain improve memory, concentration, etc?

A person’s brain is constantly undergoing neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons and connections between neurons. The more active a particular brain cell is, the more connections it develops. If these neurons aren’t cultivated by learning, they will wither and die without ever becoming integrated into your brain — much like an unused muscle that atrophies.

What can individuals do to exercise their brains?

While crossword puzzles, sudoku, and other mind games provide some exercise, they only address limited areas of the brain. The most effective way to stimulate and sustain neurogenesis is through programs specifically designed to offer a variety of tasks that engage a wide range of mental muscles using the right mix of novelty, variety and “stretching” practice.

What is SharpBrains?

SharpBrains is an online brain fitness center that provides state-of-the-art, science-based information, assessments and programs. The company’s goal is to help members of all ages find the best computer-based program to exercise their brains, and then support them with educational materials, interactive tools such as blogs and forums and one-on-one assistance from online brain fitness coaches.

Highlights of Brain Science

Thanks to new neuroimaging techniques, regarded “as important for neuroscience as telescopes were for astronomy”, neuroscientists are finding that the brain has a number of “core capacities” and “mental muscles” that can be exercised through novelty, variety and practice, and that exercising our brain influences the generation of new neurons and their connections.

Previous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not create new neurons (proven false by Berkeley scientists Marian Diamond and Mark Rosenzweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that working memory has a maximum limit of 6 or 7 items (Karolinska Institute’s Torkel Klingberg), and assumptions that the brain’s basic processes can not be reorganized by repeated practice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tallal and Michael Merzenich). Some links and references are available below. The “mental muscles” we can train include attention, stress and emotional management, memory, visual/ spatial, auditory processes and language, motor coordination and executive functions like planning and problem-solving.

Mental stimulation is important if done in the right supportive and engaging environment. Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky has proven that chronic stress and cortical inhibition, which may be aggravated due to imposed mental stimulation, may prove counterproductive. Having the right motivation is essential.

A surprising and promising area of scientific inquiry is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). An increasing number of neuroscientists (such as UMass Medical School’s Jon Kabat-Zinn and University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard Davidson) are investigating the ability of trained meditators to develop and sustain attention and visualizations and to work positively with powerful emotional states and stress through the directed mental processes of meditation practices.

Key Scientific Concepts in Brain and Mind Fitness

Chronic Stress: ongoing, long-term physiological arousal where stressors block the formation of new neurons and negatively impact the immune system’s defenses.

Cortical facilitation: state of mind which is associated with improved comprehension, memory recall and the ability to solve problems. The opposite is cortical inhibition, where reactions are slowed and we cannot think clearly and where the more refined mental processes– such as abstract reasoning or comprehending the deeper meaning of what is being read or said– are especially affected.

Cognitive training: consists of a variety of brain exercises designed to help work out “mental muscles”. The principle underlying cognitive training is to help improve the “core” abilities, which most people mistakenly consider as instincts.

Cognitive Reserve (or Brain Reserve): hypothesis that addresses the fact that individuals vary considerably in the severity of cognitive aging and clinical dementia. Mental stimulation, education and occupational level are believed to be major active components of building a cognitive reserve that can help resist the attacks of mental disease.

fMRI: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive neuroimaging technique that enables researchers see images of changing blood flow in the brain associated with neural activity. This allows images to be generated that reflect which structures are activated (and how) during performance of different tasks.

Heart Rate Variability: describes the frequency of the cardiac cycle. There is a two-way communication system between the heart and the brain that regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and it is the interaction of signals flowing between the two that causes the heart rate to vary with each beat.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR):
yoga and meditation practices designed to enable effective responses to stress, pain, and illness.

Neuroimaging: includes the use of various techniques to either directly or indirectly image the structure, function, or pharmacology of the brain. It is a relatively new discipline within medicine and neuroscience.

Neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life.

Working memory: the ability to keep information current for a short period while using this information. Working memory is used for controlling attention, and deficits in working memory capacity lead to attention problems.

ABOUT NEAL COHEN, PSY.D

Neal Cohen, Psy.D., SharpBrains Head Brain Fitness Coach, is a licensed psychologist with expertise in neurocognitive and psychological testing; memory training; AD/HD; and learning disabilities. Dr. Cohen has spent more than a decade studying how mental exercise and stress management can improve human behavior and performance.

Dr. Cohen earned his Masters Degree and Doctorate of Psychology at the Georgia School of Professional Psychology. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philosophy, Magna Cum Laude, from Boston University. Dr. Cohen is a licensed provider of working memory training, with a private practice in Roswell, GA.

ABOUT SHARPBRAINS

SharpBrains.com is the first online brain fitness center to provide education and tools to help people of all ages and skill levels achieve improved brain function by exercising their minds. Through personalized, computer-based brain fitness programs, SharpBrains helps individuals improve memory, concentration, decision-making and planning skills, reaction time, stress management, and other core capacities, as well as help delay the onset of age-related dementias. The company also offers education about the science behind the technology, support tools and one-on-one assistance from online brain fitness coaches to optimize mental training sessions.

A person’s brain is constantly undergoing neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons and connections between neurons. The more active a particular brain cell is, the more connections it develops. SharpBrains’ programs are designed to work out these cells with targeted mental exercises.

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