The Multidisciplinary Mind

January 12, 2011


Over the years, countless studies detailing different methods for increasing brain function have been released. Unfortunately, said Sharon Begley in a recent Newsweek article, many of these studies are wrong.

“A 2010 evaluation of purported ways to maintain or improve cognitive function, conducted for the National Institutes of Health, shows how many of the claims of cognitive enhancers are as sketchy as a Wild West poker player with a fifth ace up his sleeve,” Begley said. Possible enhancers included a number of vitamins, diets, statins and NSAIDs.

Rather, Begley said it's important to develop more neurons and synapses. “Both neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) and synapse formation boost learning, memory, reasoning and creativity,” she said.

To do that, studies suggest trying new things. Begley said “people who excel at particular tasks” have more efficient, higher capacity and more flexible brain circuits. Additionally, she said repeated attention to a particular input, like a tactile sensation or a sound, expands functional circuits in the relevant brain region. For instance, “a region of the auditory cortex expands when we hear a particular sound over and over.¦

“That might explain why skills we're already good at don't make us much smarter: we don't pay attention to them. In contrast, taking up a new cognitively demanding activity – ballroom dancing, a foreign language – is more likely to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functional networks.”

While it's true that continued focus on or training in a particular skill does strengthen relevant brain circuits, “improving processing speed, does not improve memory, and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly, doing crossword puzzles will improve your ability to¦ do crosswords,” but it won't help you with other tasks.

But, Begley did offer some activities that might strengthen brain circuits and transfer to other tasks:

  1. Physical Exercise: Studies done in older adults have found that exercise stimulates “the creation of new neurons in the region of the hippocampus that files away experiences and new knowledge” and “the production of new synapses, the connections that constitute functional circuits and whose capacity and efficiency underlie superior intelligence.”
  2. Meditation: Building concentration by focusing on one object enhances “mental agility and attention by changing brain structure and function so that brain processes are more efficient, the quality associated with higher intelligence.”
  3. Videogames: Games that require motor control, visual search, working memory, long-term memory, decision making and attention improve “executive-control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory and reasoning in older adults.”

What do you think? Will these three activities prove more successful at improving your intelligence than the sketchy possible enhancers Begley mentioned?